Not Going Gently: Remembering Walter Cronkite At the beginning of this decade, independent producer John McDonough helped bring Water Cronkite to the listeners of National Public Radio. McDonough says the unexpected endurance of Cronkite and his reputation — long after his official retirement — was a kind of shadow that stalked CBS news for more than 20 years.
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Not Going Gently: Remembering Walter Cronkite

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Not Going Gently: Remembering Walter Cronkite

Not Going Gently: Remembering Walter Cronkite

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We're going to give the last word this hour to a voice that is gone but not forgotten. Long after Walter Cronkite left the television anchor seat, we heard him on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. For nearly a decade, producer John McDonough worked with Cronkite and his huge trove of CBS News reports. Together, they brought big moments in history back to life. Cronkite died on Friday. McDonough has this remembrance.

JOHN MCDONOUGH: Old anchors, like old generals, typically fade away, but Walter Cronkite did not. He remained a national presence in retirement longer than anyone expected, certainly himself.

In the fall of 2006, as we were getting ready to record, I mentioned it was about a week before his 90th birthday. It was a prospect he viewed with a combination of modesty and surprise.

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Anchor, CBS News): I'm not anxious to make a big thing of it. You know, I've become 90 years old, for god's sake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCDONOUGH: He had made a bet with the future when he stepped down from the evening news in 1981. Now, here he was, 25 years later, still broadcasting, traveling and enjoying good health. Knowing that, I asked, would he have made the same bet again? He didn't reflect for a second.

Mr. CRONKITE: The answer is definitely no, absolutely not. You know, I've thought of that many, many times.

MCDONOUGH: And perhaps with some regret. The unexpected endurance of Cronkite and his reputation was a kind of shadow that stalked CBS News for more than 20 years.

I first met him in 2000 at the University of Texas in Austin and quickly noticed his brittle relationship with the network. In exchange for many benefits, CBS News could not only keep him off other networks, it could keep him off of CBS News, too, and it did.

I got a brief glimpse into that tension in Austin. Walter and Andy Rooney had come to the university to honor a former colleague. When Rooney decided to tape his weekly "60 Minutes" piece in Austin, he wrote in a brief appearance for Walter. But when New York saw the copy, Walter's cameo got the blue pencil.

Walter's friendships ranged across eight presidents, countless heads of state and some surprises, too. I once noticed a large Chinese gong in his office hanging from a floor stand next to his desk. It was a gift from another close friend, Mickey Hart, former drummer with the Grateful Dead.

My wife and I paid a visit to his summer home in Martha's Vineyard in 2004. Late in the afternoon, when we got back from sailing, his chief of staff, Marlene Adler, called from New York with the day's routine messages and invitations. I was quietly impressed with the names I heard from his end of the conversation, starting with the Clintons and the Kissingers, and even more impressed when he asked Marlene to just send his regrets.

No journalistic function is more basic than the obituary, and in one of his last NPR pieces, Walter offered some reflections on its art and craft.

Mr. CRONKITE: In journalism, we recognize a kind of hierarchy of fame among the famous. We measure it in two ways: by the length of an obituary and by how far in advance it is prepared. The news services and some newspapers and TV networks often have standing libraries of some obituaries. The subjects are usually older and often ailing.

MCDONOUGH: And now, here we are with Walter's obit. Maybe it will offer a similar moment. His NPR commentaries were a kind of summing up. For some, they were an insightful nostalgia; for others, evidence of a storied but unwitnessed reputation. Here at NPR, we were just proud to have him.

I remember after his first piece, one senior vice president wrote privately in an email that he felt a chill run up his spine when he first heard the words…

Mr. CRONKITE: This is Walter Cronkite in New York for National Public Radio.

MCDONOUGH: And for NPR News, this is John McDonough.

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