It was a great privilege to interview Walter Cronkite, whose stellar reporting meant so much to those of us who watched him every night on CBS for many years. I first met Walter at the home of the Consul General ofCanada in New York, Pamela Wallin, who hosted a luncheon to celebrate a new book by Bill Baker (the president of WNET-Channel 13), which Ruder Finn Press had just published. I asked if he would be willing to be interviewed for MOVE!, and despite his busy schedule, he graciously agreed to do so. David Katzive videotaped the interview, which took place in Walter’s office at CBS.
David Finn: Many of my interviews for MOVE! magazine are with friends in their later years. Most are over 90—one was over 100! You’re a young man, only 89 at this point. But I want to ask how you feel at this impressive age.
Walter Cronkite: I hate to answer this without knocking on wood, but I haven’t really noticed any serious change in the last few years. My memory is a little less sharp than it was, and that’s saying a lot because it wasn’t very sharp in the first place. I have a little trouble with that. My biggest handicap is hearing. I’m quite deaf and have a great deal of difficulty with that. That’s a huge handicap; I didn’t realize how bad it would be.
DF: Do you have hearing aids?
WC: Oh yes. I’ve gone through the entire litany of hearing aids.
DF: How about your memory? I find memory is a frustrating problem. Don’t you find that too?
WC: Yes. My memory is peculiar. I remember very distant things, but they tell me that’s rather normal. I can hardly recall yesterday at all.
DF: Do you have a problem with names?
WC: I’ve never been very good with names. I remember incidents; I remember news stories I’ve covered. I remember the details of those stories, and the names of people who were involved in them. But with friends or just casual acquaintances, I never catch the name in the first place. And I have a terrible time recalling them.
DF: It seemed to me that you have had second thoughts about retiring at sixty-five. Is that true?
WC: When I was sixty-five, I told the company I was going to step down from daily journalism to the evening news. I didn’t leave CBS. I’m still at CBS and have my office there. But at the time I decided to quit the daily news they just wouldn’t believe me. Finally, when we were coming up to the time to renew my contract (my contract expired on my 65th birthday), I convinced them that I really was retiring. They had a hard time believing it. They came back to me and said, “Are you serious about stepping down at sixty-five?” And I said, “Dead serious. I’ve been trying to awaken you guys to that for a long time.” And they said, “Well, then we may have found a place to put Dan Rather,” rather than letting him go to ABC, which wanted to hire him. So that’s when Dan took over.
DF: I remember that those of us who loved to listen to you were heartbroken that you were leaving.
WC: Oh, well, thank you for that. I was very unhappy leaving, too. I mean I became a bit unhappy after I left. I was not unhappy at first because suddenly I was able to go sailing— which I love—on my own schedule, and be with my family. But as life went on and the big stories broke and I wasn’t covering them, I was quite unhappy.
DF: I know a lot of people who retired and fell apart after their retirement. And then other people who retired often worked harder than they did when they were working professionally.
WC: I think they’re the happy ones. I’ve been just about as busy since I retired as I would have been on the daily news. I do a lot of lecturing, a lot of writing, a lot of documentary productions. So I’m busy.
DF: If you had to do it over again, would you retire from your professional life?
WC: If I had known I was going to be in such good health for so long I would not have retired at that time. I might have put it off another ten years. However, the family was growing up, and I did want to spend more time with them.
DF: Tom Brokaw has just retired. Did he ask you whether it was a good idea for him to retire?
WC: Yes. I told him that if he was in as good health as he looks to be, still climbing mountains and that sort of thing, I thought he ought to put it off for a while. But he didn’t take my advice.
DF: I know you’re interested in sailing. Is that a major interest of yours?
WC: Yes. I was a latecomer to it, I was already well along in my CBS years when I first sailed —it was probably around 1960. The great thing about sailing is, of course, that you’re using mother nature and jollying her along to get her help with the wind and the tides, currents, the things you have to overcome to sail well. It is a daily challenge, which, I think, is fascinating. Also the calm, passivity of sailing —without that engine going, just a small sensitive power in the sails is propelling you and doing a very good job of it.
DF: Do you think about other things while you’re sailing, or do you just try and relax?
WC: If you’re sailing, if you’re skippering the boat, if you’re at the wheel, you’re not really relaxing. You’re paying a lot of attention to where the wind is, how we use it best, what courses we might lay to get where we want to go.
DF: So you could spend hours sailing?
WC: Oh, absolutely. You could spend days. I don’t get much work done on the boat at all. I don’t even get much reading done. I always take a book but I don’t think I ever get to finish one on the boat.
DF: Did your wife like sailing too? WC: She liked it very much, although she wasn’t active. She just liked being on the boat with the family. And swimming off the boat had always been a pleasure.
DF: Do your children enjoy sailing as well?
WC: Oh sure. Very much so. They had to,they didn’t have any choice. Neither did my grandchildren!
DF: Let me ask you another question. In reading your recent autobiography, “A Reporter’s Life,” I had the feeling that you are not altogether thrilled with the way the world is going these days. Am I right?
WC: That’s an understatement! I don’t think we’ve ever had a more dangerous period in the history of the world than now. The advent of the nuclear age has put us all in dire peril. There’s been nothing like it as far as I know in the history of mankind on this earth. And I do not see that the ruling powers, the larger powers, really have a handle on the situation at all.
DF: You’ve been very active in the World Federalist Organization, haven’t you?
WC: Yes, indeed. The organization has actually changed its name, you know—it’s not called the World Federalist any longer. It’s called the Citizens for Global Solutions Education Fund. The World Federalists was founded on the idea that the world should follow much the pattern of the United States, with all of the states being part of the federal government. This is what we felt we needed to do with the nations of the world becoming part of the United Nations. But then many people came to think we could never sell the American people on surrendering their sovereignty; nor could we sell that loss of sovereignty to other nations around the world. I think that is a mistake. I think we should be working towards that goal. Unless we achieve a functioning world government, we’re not going to preserve peace on earth.
DF: I remember interviewing Grenville Clark many years ago about the need for a world government. Do you know that name? Grenville Clark?
WC: Yes, indeed.
DF: He said the same thing almost fifty years ago, but I don’t think we’re any closer to it today. Do you?
WC: No, we’re not. If anything we’re a little farther away from it. I think the United Nations is staggering a bit today and I’m terribly worried about it. It’s the only organization we’ve got. It’s the only one able to legislate for the world and then to commit forces to keep the peace around the world. And we need it desperately, and we need to strengthen it.
DF: I want to ask you about Kofi Annan, who is a good friend of mine.
WC: I know him and like him very much.
DF: He’s suffered a lot over the last year with various critics attacking him.
WC: It’s most unfortunate, but I hope that clears up because I think he’s wonderful.
DF: The media sometimes reports things that aren’t true and that causes a lot of trouble. But there was a time when the media was more circumspect, even about embarrassing things that were true. For instance, I have the impression that reporters knew about Kennedy’s escapades with women but never made them public. You must have known him quite well, and I wonder what you think about that.
WC: Yes, I knew him fairly well. I was in Washington at that time and I didn’t have any sense of his philandering at all. I think that maybe many of my colleagues who said, “Oh, we knew about that all along” were just doing the usual correspondent cover-up for themselves. I don’t really believe it was as common knowledge as they made it out to be later.
DF: What about the Nixon story?
WC: That was something that affected the whole country. Nixon was guilty of the most heinous of all crimes, of trying to steal our democracy. And that little plot of his, trying to tilt an election by creating what he thought would appear to be a scandal on the other side, was a terrible thing for a President to do. He certainly would have been impeached and thrown out of office if he hadn’t quit.
DF: You must have known him pretty well too, didn’t you?
WC: I knew him very well. And I was quite amazed about his recovery from that scandal. It was remarkable that he came back as he did. He wrote some very good things in later years. I would have predicted suicide, but he didn’t do that. As a matter of fact, he had a lot of political courage, particularly in opening up China when the conservative Republicans were absolutely dead set against that.
DF: And what about Clinton?
WC: That was an unbelievable scandal. It was impossible to believe that those details would be published in a newspaper and broadcast on television. I don’t know how I would have handled it if I’d been an anchorman at that time. It was a very serious matter, but the Grand Jury effort was scandalous in itself. The Grand Jury prosecutor made no attempt to preserve the secrecy that is the right of every individual called before a Grand Jury to testify. That’s why the Grand Jury was developed by the British in the first place. The idea was that when people were suspected of doing something wrong, a body of their peers would look into the matter before they were charged. Then those who were not actually guilty would not be tarred by that brush.
DF: If that policy had been followed, do you think that the whole course of that event would have been different?
WC: Certainly the handling of it would have been vastly different. It should have been kept a secret while it was in the Grand Jury. That’s what the accused is entitled to. That’s why the Grand Jury is there. But that prosecutor deliberately opened up everything with all kinds of leaks. I believe if they had decided to indict him for anything it would have been a much more reasonable inquiry to which he would have had to answer. It would not have been the salacious scandal that it turned out to be. Much of that information did not need to be shared with the public.
DF: It was said so often that if Clinton had told the truth at the outset it would not have been such a terrible scandal. Do you agree?
WC: Absolutely. The trouble is that politicians and others try to cover up. If they faced the issue and admitted what had happened, explained it to the public, most of those problems would be forgotten in twenty-four or forty-eight hours. But when they cover up, they get into trouble. We’ve seen it with every one of the congressmen who ever got hauled in for drunkenness or other violations. Coverup is what causes the problem.
DF: You have a reputation of being the most trusted individual in the country. That must be very gratifying. Why do you think that is?
WC: I think it’s because I was a key man, for a news organization, CBS, that was undoubtedly the best in the world. And I had no problem as managing editor of the evening news—as well as the anchorperson— presenting the information the way I felt it should be done. I’m pleased that this “most trusted” description recognized that I lived as closely as possible to the tenets of professional journalism.
DF: In your brief remarks about Larry Tisch in your book, you made it clear that you didn’t think that he was the right person to head CBS.
WC: I thought it was unfortunate. Larry Tisch was a man who made investments for the purpose of making a lot of money, which is perfectly all right. And he did that well at CBS. But he had no training in entertainment or in news reporting. And these are the two fundamentals of the network. As a consequence, I think both of them suffered quite seriously when he was chairman. He wasn’t very interested in the product.
DF: I know you have strong feelings about the role of NASA and the advent of space travel. What is your perspective on its significance for the future of mankind?
WC: One of the greatest bits of luck I had was being able to cover NASA from the very beginning. As a matter of fact, I witnessed the flying bombs in World War II, the first use of rocket power, which I saw from the eastern side of the Netherlands. I took an interest in rocketry at the time, and began to read something about it. And when I came back home from overseas I immediately began looking into what we were doing.
At that time the military was working on rocketry, and after World War II they brought to the States from Germany some of the best rocket people in the world. I met them and followed them around, and as the project moved from the Air Force to NASA, I began covering its progress. It was one of the great assignments of all time. It continued right on through the development of manned rocketry, and the landing on the moon. That was a great story. We’ve accomplished the seemingly impossible by landing on that distant orb out there, even though it happened to be the closest one to us. And we’re doing great things with unmanned rocketry, looking at distant planets, including Mars. With our working eyes and ears on Mars we’ve learned something new every day. This is an incredible story.
I think that five hundred years from now, the day that man landed on the moon will be the one date that will be remembered out of all the magnificent things that have happened in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century— including the development of the airplane, the development of the automobile, the development of the telephone, the development of the electric light, all of that, and all the wonderful tools that are keeping people alive much longer, and better than they ever could before. Of all those miracles, it is landing on the moon for the first time that will stand out from everything else. My certainty about that goes back to the fifteenth century, which was a pretty interesting time. It was the beginning of the end of the dark ages, and there was much that happened in that century. But the date we remember is 1492, the year man landed on the western hemisphere and proved that the globe was round. That is what we’ve done with landing on the moon. People who are going to be living out there five hundred years from now will look at those rocket ships and think how primitive they were, but how great it was that man landed on the moon for the first time. We will have paved the way in our generation for them to be living wherever they will be out there in space.
DF: Do you think we’ll ever find life elsewhere in the universe?
WC: I think we’ll find some kind of life but I don’t think it’s going to be human beings walking around like us. That would be a cosmic coincidence.
DF: Thank you very much, Walter. It’s been a privilege to have this opportunity to talk with you.