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American Journalism Review
Seventeen Years With Uncle Walter  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   March 1992

Seventeen Years With Uncle Walter   

Walter Cronkite: His Life & Times
By Doug James
JM Press

Book review by Chip Rowe
Chip Rowe, a former AJR associate editor, is an editor at Playboy.     


Walter Cronkite: His Life & Times
By Doug James
JM Press
280 pages, $19.95

Doug James, a longtime high school and college teacher in Mobile, Alabama, spent 17 years researching his new biography of Walter Cronkite. The book, which began as an academic paper, contains many rich and often quirky details about the retired CBS News anchor.
Interview by Chip Rowe, assistant editor of WJR.

WJR: Noting the offbeat details you include in your book, and knowing you spent years tracking Walter's life and career, people might accuse you of being obsessed.

DJ[laughs]: It was just a matter of seeing something through. I was teaching full-time and doing Naval Reserve on weekends, so I didn't have the time I needed to finish the manuscript. It sort of followed me around.

WJR: You interviewed his mother, Helen Fritsche Cronkite, and became friends. How did you meet?

DJ:I knew Helen was living in Washington, D.C., so I phoned her and she was very receptive. All the way through she sent me clippings she thought I might be able to use.

WJR: At one point she gave you some childhood photos of her son, which you include in the book.

DJ:She gave me the whole family album. I brought it home and used the things I thought were appropriate and then returned it.

WJR: Did Walter do anything as a kid that would drive her crazy?

DJ:No, she never would say that. Walter is still her little boy. She was his guiding light.

WJR: You mention in the book that Walter likes striptease acts. Can you elaborate?

DJ:He does a parody at parties, where he takes off his jacket and pantomimes with a silk scarf to the song "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." It's never been a sleaze thing.

WJR: How many times did you talk with him?

DJ:Twice on the phone and once in his office. I spent a day at CBS News in 1974.

WJR: We know he loves sailing. Does he have any other hobbies?

DJ:He's a daredevil. He dove in a submarine under the Arctic ice cap, he flew in one of the planes where they do a flip to make you weightless, he raced sports cars and rolled one over in the Smokies, he flew in a hot air balloon with Malcolm Forbes, but it crash-landed and dragged them across a pasture. He still wants to go into space, but nobody's asked.

WJR: In 1968, he had a special program to express his disillusionment with the Vietnam War. Supposedly that had some effect on Lyndon Johnson.

DJ:The story goes that Johnson said, "Well, we've lost Cronkite, so we've lost middle America." I understand at that point he decided not to seek re-election.

WJR: That same year Walter had a rough time at the Democratic convention in Chicago when he interviewed Mayor Daley.

DJ:It was his worst hour. Daley completely overwhelmed him.

WJR: You note another disastrous experience he suffered years earlier, in 1954.

DJ:CBS hoped to compete with NBC's "Today" show, so they had Walter surrounded by huge puppets such as Humphry the Hound-Dog and Charlemane the Lion. He was supposed to cavort with these animals and read the news. But it was too ambitious.

WJR: Since his retirement, what direction has network news taken?

DJ:Thomas Hoving has called today's network anchors "automatons" because you can predict with a stopwatch exactly what movements each will make. They don't have the compassion of a Cronkite.

WJR: Is Walter still the most trusted man in America?

DJ:In 1990, nine years after he retired, people asked to rate 102 broadcasters still said he was Number One. CBS uses him now to hook an audience; sometimes he literally introduces a show and walks off.

WJR: Why is it that Americans trust him?

DJ:It's his comfortable look he looks like a Dutch uncle. We'd been let down by so many people, but Walter Cronkite was what we thought he was.

WJR: There's no chance that he's a closet scoundrel?

DJ:No chance! Knowing his mother, I just couldn't believe that.

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