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NEW YORK — Even in a storied career that included nearly 20 years at the helm of the “CBS Evening News” and more awards than almost anyone could count, the memorial service for Walter Cronkite felt like a pretty spectacular send-off.
Two presidents spoke, all three anchors (and one future anchorwoman) were in attendance, Wynton Marsalis and Jimmy Buffett serenaded the crowd and Andy Rooney gave a video tribute that likely would have charmed even his harshest critics.
The 41st president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, spoke of being called by Cronkite during the Monica Lewinsky saga, while both he and the late anchorman were on the Cape in Massachusetts. "In a very tumultuous summer in our personal lives, he called us and said 'Betsy [Cronkite's now deceased wife] and I want you to go sailing with us. Somebody might take a picture of it, but so what?'" Recounting this story from the podium, Clinton laughed and said, “At the time, I could have done worse than a picture with Walter Cronkite.” For the former president, who is frequently funny but rarely when it comes to himself, it was a delicious moment.
Rooney had a similar story about a man who did the news down the middle, but came through for people as a friend when public sentiment turned against them. In a video tribute, Rooney told of how some years ago, when he got in a jam for some off-color remarks he made on the air, Cronkite called him to say, “I’d like to use up whatever good will I still have with the American people by going out to dinner with you in public.”
Bob Schieffer arrived unassuming as ever, then stole the show. He talked not only of Cronkite’s brilliant instincts as a newsman, but his sometimes vexing habit of asking a simple but frustrating question “at 6:20, about 10 minutes before the broadcast.” Among the things that flummoxed subordinates, right before deadline, according to Schieffer, were: “How much oil is there in the world?” “Did they call him Father Christmas or Santa Claus?” in some foreign country, and “How long is Greenland?” These questions may not be difficult to answer for reporters working in the Google age, but back then, they could be pretty difficult to do so on such short notice.
Tom Brokaw, meanwhile, told the crowd of the time when Cronkite and his wife were moving, and she said to a friend, “I’m going to miss [the old place].” “Of course,” the friend said back to her, “You have so many memories there.” “No,” she said. “I’m going to miss the yard where I buried all his trophies.”
Indeed, said Rooney: “He was the only person I knew who wore out three tuxedos accepting awards.”
Still, it was President Obama, whom many — including Ken Auletta — said captured the gravity of the situation. He hit the stage after Marsalis and his band did “Down by the Riverside” and delivered an impassioned speech about how Cronkite’s death is a reminder that standards should be considered as seriously by journalism outfits as their corporate owners’ profits. (It was particularly poignant given CBS chief Les Moonves’ earlier speech, which many criticized privately as being like a “marketing speech” for the company.) “Even as appetites for news and information grow,” Obama said, “newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. And too often, we fill that void with celebrity gossip and softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed. ‘What happened today?’ is replaced with ‘Who won today?’ The public debate cheapens. The public trust falters,” the President said.
He closed: “‘This democracy,’ Walter said, ‘cannot function without a reasonably well-informed electorate.’ That’s why the honest, objective, meticulous reporting that so many of you pursue with the same zeal that Walter did is so vital to our democracy and our society. Our future depends on it.”