Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite

The greatness of the Twentieth Century began, perhaps, around 1920 when those men and women who shaped it were very young or soon to be born. As America went through the Great Depression and then World War II they all, like Walter Cronkite, pioneered everything that the Twittering, texting, Facebook generation may well be taking for granted.

Perhaps Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” explained it best as those who grew up in the Depression, fought WWII and came back to the States after the war to change America over and over again through entertainment, science, technology, politics, medicine, business and the expansion of America through suburban development and the building of an infrastructure of freeways and communications technology.

For so many things, from our current national security state to the feminist and civil rights movement, World War II was the incubator. The generation that changed America in the 60s, themselves now in their 60s, were born during WWII. Those who carried on those changes through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s were born immediately after WWII. And it is those people who are responsible for significant changes while the generation before them brought about some of our greatest achievements.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the first man on the moon, perhaps the greatest of those many of humankind’s achievements, kids today have no idea what a world-uniting moment that was, not to mention the triumph of technology for live television—not from another coast or another continent, but from another celestial body.

The space program of the 60s was one of the most exciting things that a kid in the 60s could grow up with. More about that in Monday’s post for the Apollo 11 anniversary.

Cronkite was one of those greats because he developed his personal strength and toughness and journalistic ideals and ethics during very difficult times and went on to pioneer nightly network television news broadcasting.

Cronkite took over the CBS Evening News a little less than six months before Johnny Carson took over as host of the “Tonight Show”. Like Carson, Cronkite took us through the turbulence of the 60s, beginning most notably for Cronkite with the live, on-air announcement of President Kennedy’s assassination. He guided us through one of the most difficult periods in American history—the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Watergate and various Cold War developments.

As someone about to turn 52, I remember a good portion of the 20th Century—at least the last 35 years of it. As a kid during the 60s and 70s, Cronkite was one of those who made the scary world seem less scary just because he was there. It may sound maudlin, but I felt that no one like Walter Cronkite would let anything bad happen to us—as if they had the power to protect. I was young.

Cronkite was voted as the most trusted man in America in 1971. Trust is one of those attributes that does not seem as prominent in adults today as it did to me then, given recent news of the deceit of the Bush-Cheney administration, the rise of neo-conservatism and the squirm of the Christian Right. What kids may not realize today—as many did not during the Nixon era—is that trust can go a long way in the positive development of the world view of our country’s youth, who are our world’s future.

Every generation believes they have it better than their parents. Let’s hope that is true for this generation. But let’s hope that they have not become so comfortable that they have become weak and apathetic. On the other hand, perhaps I am simply getting older and more crotchety, and it is easier to deride younger generations rather than understand just as I witnessed the Generation Gap or the war between the generations in the 60s and 70s when I was a kid.

Cronkite’s death is one of those events that makes people like me want to put things into perspective.

Many times I bemoan the state of popular music now, of today’s television, of modern journalism, and of contemporary politics and even comedy compared to the explosions of their predecessors, some of which began in the 50s, some long before, that grew in the 60s and on through the 70s.

If you can imagine, we had what seemed like the best of everything in the 70s. Walter Cronkite was doing the news every night, Johnny Carson hosted the “Tonight Show” almost every night, the original “SNL” was on every Saturday night, CBS’s Saturday night line-up at one point began with “All in the Family”, followed by “M*A*S*H”, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett—all classics in their own right in one night. What a great time to grow up.

Comedians like Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor and George Carlin were in their prime. Monty Python was becoming known in America. Rock n roll, punk and country produced some great music and musical events during the 70s. Watergate gave us one of the greatest political scandals—and a first for television—and, in movies, daring, personal and gritty cinema came of age and a new generation of young filmmakers: Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese and Lucas changed everything. And through it all there was the continual threat of the Cold War. But every night Walter Cronkite told us what we needed to know of our world’s milestones and developments.

Many prominent people from our “golden era” have been dying recently—Michael Jackson, Karl Malden, Ed McMahon and now Walter Cronkite.

Perhaps a good analogy of the “golden era” which many of us experienced, like the 70s, is the sun shining brightly overhead. People like those above whose greatness is responsible for, or identified with, our golden era; their leaving is like the diminishing light of a sun that has set. With each person who passes on, more of that light disappears from the sky because the sun has dropped even lower below the horizon. With Cronkite’s passing more of that brightness is gone and we are heading, it seems, toward greater darkness. But, perhaps I’m just being a little too pessimistic about tomorrow.

As this and future generations face problems like global climate change, the “war on terror”, and increasing over-population and diminishing resources, the only consolation I can think of is maybe another golden era will come or that they see this time as their golden era.

If they’re lucky they will be told everything they need to know, not on Twitter or Facebook, but by someone like Walter Cronkite.