Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Uncle Walter

NOTE: I do still enjoy printed books versus electronic books. But the sheer weight of this thing, coming in at more than 800 pages, is a strong argument in favor of electronic books. But I digress from Miss Deets.

He really is Uncle Walter. You know, Uncle Walter, the lecherous, loud-mouthed creepy guy who’s always at family parties drinking too much, being way too loud, spouting politics and other nonsense not because he’s the cute octogenarian and has earned the right to speak his mind, but because no matter what you’ve done over the years, he won’t shut the hell up.

I suppose maybe that’s a bit harsh to say of Walter Cronkite, but in Douglas Brinkley’s biography of the man, that’s kinda how he appears.

And like many relatives, he stays far too long after the other guests have given up and gone home. This biography is ponderous, oddly-written at times and stretched his twenty-year retirement out even longer than his seventy-year career.

And, most oddly, there’s very little of Cronkite in “Cronkite,” which seems oddest of all, considering the extensive amount of paper this man must have left behind after seventy years in journalism. Brinkley seemed too intent in talking with friends and contemporaries to actually dig into the paper trail to tell us who Walter Cronkite is.

And I’ve certainly read more engaging biographies. Not that I need to be entertained by every aspect of the book, but there are historians (Richard Rhodes and Barbara Tuchman come to mind) who have a style of writing that’s more novelistic while still remaining eminently factual. Brinkley never succeeds in breaking through the glass, as Dan Rather said of Cronkite, to connect with the reader.

Still, I enjoyed the read, if only to discover that Cronkie is a fan of C.W. McCall’s song “Convoy,” something which amused my older brother to no end, as he’s a McCall fan as well.

Here’s what I learned:

Newspapers have always had their bums stuffed with tweed. From page 47: “Joining the Ringling Brother or entering into vaudeville was considered nobler work than radio. Newspaper journalism crashed through daunting obstacles to find the truth and confirm facts. To be a newspaper reporter – whether trained at college or in the school of hard knocks at an obituary desk – was to uphold high standards of clarity, accuracy, and objectivity that had made newspapers “the fourth estate” across America, and an adjunct to decent democratic government.”

Radio, too, has its fair share of tweed-bum cases. From page 161: “Murrow found the noun anchorman repugnant, but he also thought televised conventions were a horror show where no hard news was made. To Murrow, television was all part of a public relations game, and CBS’ coverage of the 1952 conventions was essentially free advertising for the Democratic and Republican parties, not true journalism.”

Uncle Walter wasn’t above skullduggery. From page 164: Just how hungry Cronkite was to excel in CBS’s coverage of the conventions became readily apparent when he orchestrated the secret tape recording of the Repulbicans’ credentials committee meeting. Long before the Nixon administration bugged the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate in 1972, Cronkite, after much deliberation, had a CBS technician wire the committee room under the shady rationale that the covert act was good for democracy. “He ran a wire,” Cronkite recalled, “up the outside of the hotel and into a broom closet several floors above. There one of our newspeople listened through earphones and rushed notes . . . to me downstairs. The sources of these reports baffled both the Republicans and my broadcast opposition.”

Yeah, stay classy, Uncle Walter.

Cronkite had blinders, just like any journalist. Form page 346: ”Walter was too skeptical, too savvy and had too sensitive a shit-detector to be taken in, but Walter could be diverted by machinery, by things with wheels and wings, and especially by things that float, and the military saw to it that he had a chance to see and use everything, go on air strikes, be made to feel an insider,” [Morley] Safer perceptively explained.
It wasn’t until Cronkite noticed the blinders himself and spent time away from officialdom and saw the Vietnam War firsthand that he realized what a stalemate the war was.

Bill Moyers (no surprise here) is an ass. From page 352: Bill Moyers claimed in hindsight that if Cronkite had been more courageous, like Murrow, and criticized the U.S. buildup in Vietnam in 1965 [President Lyndon] Johnson might have deescalated the conflict. This was ass-covering bullshit: every time the CBS Evening News ran a segment even slightly critical of Johnson policy, Moyers pounced with a White House threat. Cronkite thought that Moyers, a former reporter for Johnson’s radio-TV stations in Austin, was a phony, acting like he was one of the press boys when in reality he was an LBJ talking horse.

So a fascinating book, but what makes it fascinating is the subject matter, not the writing or the research.

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