I met Walter Cronkite in 1983, on the twentieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. The occasion was an autograph party for South by Southeast, a book about sailing off the southeastern coast of the United States, for which he wrote the text and artist Ray Ellis contributed paintings. Before and after the party we talked about Kennedy, of course, about that day, but Cronkite loved to sail, he loved journalism, and he couldn't be bound to a single topic of conversation, however grim the date might have been.
Of course, by then I felt like I knew Walter Cronkite. I grew up watching him on the CBS evening news. I have always had a deep, abiding interest in journalism, and that probably stemmed, at least in part, from seeing him work--seeing how he delivered the important facts of the day, facts that he believed an informed American electorate had to have in order to keep democracy whole and vibrant. He let his emotions show at times, let his beliefs color what he said on few occasions, and when he did you knew it was meaningful. When Cronkite turned against the war in Vietnam, it's been said, the nation turned against it.
In so many ways, he defined television journalism. He was, polls told us, the most trusted man in America. He was pure gravitas, most of the time, but you didn't have to look far to see that he loved life and had a great sense of humor.
These days, with cable news and internet news, the network news broadcasts are less crucial than they once were. But hard news journalism is more important, and more threatened, than ever. Cronkite was a reporter first and foremost, and we need reporters. The loss of Walter Cronkite feels like a symptom of the loss of real journalism, and I hope there are people out there who look to his example and dedicate their lives to bringing us the news we have to have.
He loved space travel, too, and one can't help wondering if he held on just long enough to see the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11--the precursor to the landing and the first step onto the lunar surface, a moment that rendered him speechless, on live TV.
He signed off every night with "And that's the way it is." And when he said it, you believed it was so.