Over the weekend the biggest news came from the death of Walter Cronkite, and his CBS glory days. He shot to fame covering John F. Kennedy's assassination, as all the weekend's reporters and commentators said. He and I had a nodding acquaintance before he traveled to New York and took over my early Channel 9 slot, opposite NBC's "Today."
WTOP-TV promotion genius Cody Pfanstiehl laid out an ad with photographs for both our faces; a cartoonist drew the hands that were switching an alarm clock between him and me. The copy presumed a friendship that did not yet exist. Before leaving, in an act of typical kindness, Walter suggested I call his Manhattan office "any time." (His news-oriented program, incidentally, was replaced by country and western star Jimmy Dean, who gave way to Captain Kangaroo.)
Over the years we talked when life brought me to Manhattan. Walter sounded somewhat surprised, on one occasion, when I assured him the New York talk was wrong; most people in Washington assumed Mr. Eisenhower would not resign because of a heart attack. The president had several – before yielding the Oval Office to John F. Kennedy, whose murder promoted his Texas' vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
As readers know, I volunteered a stint in the Johnson White House, as writer and consultant on the arts. Walter was invited and accepted participation in the then-annual Salute to Congress. We rehearsed my script for his narrator's role in his suite, at the old Shoreham Hotel. We developed an affinity reflected in the way he immediately accepted my calls, whatever else was going on. I learned from him, not on television, that the shah was exiled to Egypt; the reason for contacting him that day was that I had just returned from Cairo.
I happened to be in New York when his "resignation" and replacement were officially announced. Walter had made an appointment with CBS News President Bill Leonard to talk about the network hiring me. When Iranians seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran, the ignorance of Islam displayed was overwhelming. I had spent time in Egypt and came away with knowledge about Muslims and their religion. Of course, my old friend's forced departure that very day diminished the news division's interest in me. I accepted the reality.
But my acceptance of Dan Rather has always been another matter.
Walter was forced out; approaching 65, he was about to turn the network's "mandatory" retirement age. There existed no secret within the television industry that Mr. Rather prevailed because of "threats" CBS would lose him to ABC. This was the root cause of stories that my old friend was bitter his last years; he should have been – especially at Bill Leonard who engineered his ouster. (We should note that when Mr. Leonard reached 65 he kept on running the news division, on New York's 57th street.)
Dan Rather won a national "name" for his reporting out of the network's Dallas bureau, on the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. By chance, I was in the airport taxi hailed by Mr. Rather and his manager, when he reported to CBS in Washington. The two climbed into the back seat without hearing where I was going; they ignored me, as a member of the great unwashed public. We were, as it turned out, headed for the same address. After several days spent wooing ad agencies for my WTOP-TV and radio shows, I was returning to old Broadcast House.
What I listened to were the TV reporter's familiar tones raised in heat and the manager's efforts to soothe his client. What I heard was unbridled ambition combined with destructive hubris willing to clobber anyone and anything that got in the way of Mr. Rather's climb. He wanted all glory and money – and instantly!
Walter Cronkite never came to respect his successor. On Dan Rather's stepping down from the anchor position, Walter said he should have been replaced long before because of his lack of professionalism. By the way, Mr. Rather quit after criticism of the lack of reporting and investigating for his report that President George W. Bush overstated his service in Texas' National Guard. The Washington Post quoted an unnamed CBS official that the network had no future for Dan Rather, who mounted a lawsuit against everyone involved in his departure; he insisted the report on Mr. Bush was true, while admitting the deplorable lack of investigation.
My old friend and I didn't talk after his vindication about his successor. Our lives had diverged. The official statement said he was struck down by cerebral vascular disease. Son "Chip" told The New York Times, however, his father suffered dementia.
At 92, Walter Cronkite deserved escape from the world's realities. His passing was mourned by this world's millions. He earned the right, long ago, to rest in the peace he never knew as a very competitive journalist.