Guests: Brian Williams, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Thanks very much, David.
Good evening. We do have breaking news this evening which is that Walter Cronkite who anchored “CBS Evening News” for nearly 20 years has died. He was 92 years old. Mr. Cronkite died at his home in New York with his family by his side.
A CBS executive tells us that Mr. Cronkite passed away at 7:42 p.m. Eastern Time this evening after a long battle with cerebral vascular disease.
Mr. Cronkite was called the most trusted man in America in a 1972 poll, beating out the president and the vice president, and the Congress for the title, of course.
When he was 12 years old, Mr. Cronkite said he read about a foreign correspondent in “Boys‘ Life” magazine and then and there, he decided that that was what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Cronkite got his start as a journalist working for small newspapers and for radio stations before joining a wire service called “United Press.” And that job took him overseas to cover World War II. That saw him going ashore on D-Day, parachuting with the 101st Airborne Division, and flying along even on a bombing mission over Germany.
Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow offered Mr. Cronkite a job in radio when he returned to New York. Mr. Cronkite turned it down. Years later, Murrow offered Cronkite another job, this time in television, and this time, Cronkite took him up on the offer.
Here now is NBC‘s Brian Williams with a look back at the life and the massive influence of Walter Cronkite.
WALTER CRONKITE, LEGENDARY JOURNALIST: Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy‘s motorcade in downtown Dallas.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, “NBC NIGHTLY NEWS” ANCHOR (voice-over): He‘ll be forever linked to the assassination of our young president. And with American space flights.
CRONKITE: Man on the moon. Whew, boy.
WILLIAMS: And the downfall of a president.
CRONKITE: We should try tonight to pull together the threads of this amazing story, quite unlike any in our modern American history.
WILLIAMS: For 20 years in this country, 25 million Americans each night got their news from Walter Cronkite.
CRONKITE: And that‘s the way it is.
WILLIAMS: And for all those watching in living rooms across the country, it was the way it was. Cronkite‘s audience was so big, he was so influential; at times, it seemed more like he was addressing the nation on a nightly basis than just anchoring the news. When a survey named him the most trusted man in America, that title stuck.
Walter Cronkite came from humble roots to get there, beginning with his high school newspaper, then as a cub reporter for “The Houston Post” at age 19.
He covered World War II for “United Press.”
CRONKITE: I‘m just back from the biggest assignment that any American reporter could have so far in this war.
WILLIAMS: Then came the Cold War, and again, Cronkite was there.
CRONKITE: It will be exploded at 5:20 our time. That‘s two minutes and 20 seconds from now.
WILLIAMS: He was named anchor of the “CBS Evening News” in 1962. He was 47 when his career-defining moment arrived a year later in the form of a bulletin from Dallas, Texas.
CRONKITE: The flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time.
WILLIAMS: An old promotional black and white film by CBS News, “A Day in the Life of Walter Cronkite,” shows us an anchorman at the height of his power, in a different era when TV was still new and back then, there were just three networks to choose from. With that power and his huge viewing audience, came influence.
After a trip to Vietnam in 1968, he concluded the war couldn‘t be won.
CRONKITE: To say we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion.
WILLIAMS: Just weeks later, President Johnson announced he wouldn‘t seek another term.
CRONKITE: When he saw this on the air, he said that “If I‘ve lost Cronkite, I‘ve lost middle America.”
WILLIAMS: Cronkite took part in a kind of accidental diplomacy when Sadat of Egypt told him on live TV he was willing to visit Israel.
CRONKITE: That could be, say, within a week?
ANWAR SADAT, THEN-PRESIDENT OF EGYPT: You can say that. Yes.
WILLIAMS: Cronkite ruled the airwaves and the newsroom at CBS, always demanding the best, always demanding more, and he gave up the anchor chair with delayed but profound regret.
CRONKITE: Old anchormen, you see, don‘t fade away. They just keep coming back for more.
WILLIAMS: Years ago, he was asked to sum up his own legacy.
CRONKITE: That he tried as a journalist. That he had a vision of what journalism should be, and in his own practice, he adhered to it.
WILLIAMS: He was every inch a journalist but he became an American icon—a true celebrity.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It‘s an honor to meet you, Mr. Cronkite.
CRONKITE: Call me, Walter.
WILLIAMS: Among the first to be known by a single word, he was simply “Cronkite.” And there was no other.
CRONKITE: This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.
MADDOW: Joining us now is the anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” Mr. Brian Williams.
Brian, thank you so much for taking time to talk to us tonight.
WILLIAMS (via telephone): Rachel, thank you for having me. I wish it were under better circumstances, but we‘ve—we‘ll all remember that this was an American life well lived. It was a great ride.
MADDOW: Brian, when you look back at the evolution of news and media and broadcasting over the course of the last couple generations, what do you think was different about broadcasting and news because of Walter Cronkite? What did he change about this business?
WILLIAMS: No one had formed the clay model. No one had made the mold that came out of it. Networks tried people in various roles, some combinations. Our own Huntley-Brinkley were a legendary pair on NBC, but the anchor—and I said earlier I think Don Hewitt gets credit for that moniker, and it stuck, the anchor was Walter.
I also said earlier tonight to David Shuster, Rachel, as we keep watching the black and white of those huge glass frames that he takes off to announce the death of President Kennedy in 1963, Walter is 47 years old on that day. And he was a man of his era and of his age.
And of all things, LBJ gets to write the epithet because of that quote, “If I‘ve lost Cronkite, I‘ve lost Middle America.” That was Walter‘s audience. It was his strength, Middle America. What we used to define as Middle America watched Walter Cronkite. It shaped their world view.
MADDOW: About that idea of him as the arbiter, almost the cipher of mainstream public opinion, how much did Cronkite share his own take, his own opinion on the things that he covered? So many of the iconic moments of his career are—it seems to me—people recalling a crack in the objectivity, a moment where you got a sense of what he knew. How deliberate was he about letting you know his take on things?
WILLIAMS: I think he was religious not to and others may disagree with me on this, but I‘ve always said Walter cashed in the one chip you get in the so-called objective journalism career.
He went to Vietnam on a so-called fact-finding mission. He came home. He put on the air what he found, that the war was un-winnable for the United States. It turned out to be prescient and sadly for the many soldiers who left American treasure on the battle field, he was right. That‘s what LBJ was reacting to.
I look back at his career and I saw him use that chip only once. And in every other instance, he held his personal feelings very, very close. The lack of opinion in journalism was dear to him and the seepage of opinion into journalism slowly broke his heart over the years. That was very tough on him to see how television news has changed in many quarters.
MADDOW: Even as he, quite literally I think, defined gravitas in modern broadcasting, he is the model of what gravitas looks like in broadcasting, still today—there were moments, though, where if not sharing his opinion, he did share his feelings. People, I know, still recall him saying, “Go, baby, go,” when he was covering, 40 years ago, the Apollo 11 mission.
So, showing you if not his opinion about something, at least his own emotional reaction to what he was covering.
WILLIAMS: It‘s hard to believe there was a day before we had television host bursting into tears on an almost daily basis. Rachel, you‘re right.
Two instances that were like formative in my childhood, crucibles when he had a tear in his eye after we lost President Kennedy and after we landed on the moon. It‘s just freakish we‘re covering the 40th anniversary of that mission. Absolutely hard to believe. But that‘s what passed for a crack in the exterior.
And, Rachel, one more thing. Think of how the model has changed. In Cronkite‘s day, almost up to the point when I started on “Nightly News” after getting the chair from Tom Brokaw, here was the model: We talk, audience listens, we go home. We do it again the next day.
And now, it‘s much more of a conversation. Now, I talk and I get e-mails and I talk then again with the viewers who wrote me e-mails, and I write a blog every afternoon on deadline. It‘s a different industry. It‘s a different business. It was an on high kind of platform when there were just three networks and Walter was the dominant force. It was kind of like “Time” and “Life” magazine. It was how America saw itself or was told to see itself.
And in that way, he reflected his times, too. But the model changed. Journalism kind of dispassionate, non-opinion journalism, though, Walter Cronkite had a huge hand in shaping.
MADDOW: Do you think that we‘ll never again be in a position of having an anchor or a journalist being the most trusted man in America because of the way that journalism has changed? When he—as you noted with David last hour—when he was found in that poll to be the most trusted man in America, nobody quarreled with it. It seemed like almost an obvious conclusion. Are we in an era now that there‘s no going back to that?
WILLIAMS: Yes. That‘s right. It made perfect sense to us.
You know, we‘d all let him watch our kids when we went out to the supermarket if we had the chance. We‘d all want to hear world news from him first. If it was sad or bad news, I wanted Walter to break it to us.
Because of changing times, because of the changing view of the journalism business—remember journalists weren‘t ranked, you know, as lowly as they were back then. It was still—believe it or not—held in some esteem. I don‘t ever think you‘ll have anyone with that much sway over the American people. We‘re too fragmented now.
And I think just—it was like a—landing on a carrier deck. Walter aced it. He had his chance in American journalism and television history and he stuck the landing. And he got it right.
MADDOW: Brian, I know that you had somewhat of a personal relationship with Mr. Cronkite. When you talked to him about his career, when he looked back on his career, what did he think was the hardest thing that he did? What did he find most challenging about what his—about his work?
WILLIAMS: I think keeping his head in check and his beloved wife Betsy was a—the senior vice president of keeping Walter‘s head in check. And he loved the accouterments of his job. My God, he was a—he was known just about as well as the Coca-Cola logo throughout the United States and as media proliferated around the world.
He wanted to keep working. It‘ll be said in various forms of truth over the next couple of days that he was—he left CBS News not in a way he would have liked. And he missed it and he regretted retiring. That gave a certain sadness to his retirement years.
He never stopped reading newspapers just voracious. He never totally left the game, and in that case, his life resembled the front page.
MADDOW: Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” being very generous with his time to join us tonight. Brian, thanks so much.
WILLIAMS: Thanks, Rachel. We‘ve lost a great guy.
Walter Cronkite, legendary CBS News anchor, died tonight at his home in New York at the age of 92. We‘ll be joined next in studio by Dan Rather.
MADDOW: Continuing now with breaking news tonight: Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite has passed away this evening at the age of 92. Mr. Cronkite had been suffering from cerebral vascular disease for a number of years. We‘re told that he passed away a little less than two hours ago at home surrounded by his family.
Joining us now—we‘re very lucky to say—is Dan Rather. He stepped in for Walter Cronkite as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” when Mr. Cronkite stepped down from the post in 1981.
Mr. Rather, Dan, thank you so much for coming in.
DAN RATHER, FMR. ANCHOR, “CBS EVENING NEWS”: Thank you.
MADDOW: This is obviously a very sad day for everybody whose lives were touched by Walter Cronkite. For you, personally, this has to be a very emotional night.
RATHER: It is. First and foremost because of the Cronkite family, his son and daughter who I was privileged to know for a very long time, haven‘t seen them lately. But to say the least, I‘m saddened to hear about Walter‘s passing then I should keep thinking about his family, how proud he was of his son and his daughter, his wife Betsy whom Brian Williams mentioned earlier. He called her the vice president of keeping Walter on an even keel.
I would say that she was the president and CEO not just of the Walter Cronkite fan club, but she had been a newspaper woman herself and as you know, Rachel, being on television, particularly being a supernova star such as Walter Cronkite was in the news, it‘s an egocentric, narcissistic business. And—but you rarely, if ever, saw that in Walter Cronkite.
And one reason was his wife, Betsy. I‘ve seen her and I imagine her saying, “Hey, come on, big guy,” that sort of thing. And she really kept him on an even keel. But that‘s to take nothing from himself.
It is very easy to forget on recognizing that a lot of people in the audience never saw Walter Cronkite, were not of memory age. But he was the proverbial household name. It‘s an over worked phrase. He was a living legend and his legend will outlive him by far.
That with all that, he was—again, down home doesn‘t quite say it, but he was regular, Walter. I think the audience recognized that. They recognized that he was trying to be as honest, as truthful, as integrity-filled as he possibly could.
There was another side to him. He loved race cars. He‘s raced cars when he was a younger man, loved sailing, was an excellent sailor—really did sail a pretty good sized sail boats for a long while.
But one of the things that I haven‘t seen, paid attention to much, I‘m sure, it will be—as time goes along—is that Walter Cronkite was a very brave and very good combat correspondent in World War II. For example, when they sent gliders into France, a disastrous plan by the military, Walter Cronkite was on one of those gliders. It roughly corresponded with D-Day.
And then he came out with his newspaper and wire service experience in World War II and became a pioneer in what was then the new thing of television. And in so doing, he defined the craft of television anchor.
He was an extremely strong ad-libber—which is to say that he knew how to talk without a script. When he first started, I don‘t think there was any teleprompter. And he could talk about a political convention, or a space shot, or the Korean War—which is how he got his big television break when he‘s working at WTOP in Washington, and he stood up in front of a map and talked about the Korean battlefield. And from that, that‘s why CBS hired him. He was a very strong ad-libber.
Other things to say about him, that as a television news anchor, without question, he set the standard. He set the standard by expanding the public‘s understanding and connection to big stories.
Before Walter Cronkite, I don‘t think there was anybody on television who could do that. Huntley-Brinkley, the combination for NBC, came as close as anyone, but Walter, as a sole anchor as opposed to Huntley-Brinkley, a dual anchor, he connected. Walter had that ability—what we call in television—the ability to get through the glass, which is to say connect with people in the living room.
I think the biggest thing about him is he loved reporting and presenting the news. He had a fashion for it. I believe the audience recognized that he really cared about it, deeply cared about it, had a passion for it—and that‘s one reason they made him, by far, the most popular anchor person of his time or for that matter probably any time. And enough cannot be said about what he gave to the craft.
And one other thing about him is that Walter—he stood up for his correspondents and producers. When the pressure was on about controversial stories—Vietnam and Watergate come to mind—he‘d mock (ph) his reporters and producers and field on the story rather fiercely like an uncle, but a caring, loving uncle. And he earned not just because of that, but he earned the tag with the audience and with the press of being “Uncle Walter.”
MADDOW: When you stepped in, it was announced in 1980, you stepped in 1981 when he retired, and what you were stepping into is not only a position that, as you said, has been held by a man who was quite truly a household name, even more than that if there is a—if there‘s a dumb metaphor that gets bigger than that, but also somebody who wielded incredible power and has to have been aware of that, that his take on things—however objectively put—did define mainstream public opinion.
He not only had access to anybody in the country that he wanted access to but his direct communication with the movers and shakers of the country and the world was something that he had to have been aware of, and that must have defined that role for you stepping into it in 1981 in a way that must have sort of almost felt awesome just because it was such a powerful position.
Is that what it felt like at that time?
RATHER: No. And it didn‘t feel like that at that time, partly, mostly because of Walter. Walter did not think in terms of power. What you said was exactly true but he didn‘t think in terms of power. Walter was all news all the time.
Tall tower, full power, we break in when news breaks out. We want to go for the big story. Franchise it. That‘s what was in his head. Not the power that he wielded.
And much is made and I think it should be of his famous and rightly so broadcast from Vietnam when he went to Vietnam to see for himself the war.
And he delivered as Brian Williams earlier described it pretty much saying
these are my words not his—but at best the war is a stalemate and it probably is un-winnable.
That was his objective opinion at the time. It was one of the rare times that he expressed an opinion on anything, but it was based on his objective reporting.
But he didn‘t think in terms of power. And because I had seen and proudly served as a field correspondent under Walter Cronkite, I had seen his approach to this business of power. Walter never talked in terms of power. He never saw himself as a powerful person.
He saw himself as an honest broker of information, that he gathered information. And Walter was one hell of a reporter. He wasn‘t just an anchor. And he knew good reporting and he demanded good reporting.
But he didn‘t think in terms of power; he just thought, “This is my role. My role is to present quality journalism of integrity. I‘m going to put around me people that I know believe the same thing.”
Sanford “Sandy” Socolow, who was his long-time right-hand person, had been with Walter through all kinds of things. That the point is that, institutions and broadcasts do take on the character and personality of their leaders—and the CBS News of that era, the Cronkite era, which stretched roughly from the late 1950s—he came to the anchor chair in what, I think 1962, perhaps ‘63, all the way up to 1981 -- that this permeated the organization the Cronkite way.
You don‘t think of yourself as powerful. You‘re a working reporter. Your job is to be the people‘s surrogate. Where they can‘t be, you listen to news conferences, you come on, you tell it straight. And you hope that they absorb the information.
MADDOW: Incredible, authoritative, trustworthy source. Dan Rather is our guest.
We‘re going to take a quick break and come back with more with Dan Rather. We have just learned this evening that Walter Cronkite has died at the age of 92. We‘ll be right back.
MADDOW: We‘re continuing now our breaking news coverage of the death of legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. Mr. Cronkite passed away tonight at the age of 92. The news comes to us from Mr. Cronkite‘s long-time chief of staff who confirmed tonight that he lost a long battle with cerebral vascular disease.
Reaction is pouring in tonight from those who knew and worked with Mr. Cronkite. Former President George H.W. Bush has already released a statement tonight that says, quote, “Barbara and I join the nation in mourning the passing of Walter Cronkite. As a pioneer in television journalism, he was a towering, respected figure. Many Americans heard it from Walter first that President Kennedy had died, or that a man had walked on the moon. He‘s already missed.”
We‘re joined again by Dan Rather who took over the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News after Walter Cronkite retired in 1981. Dan Rather, thanks very much for staying with us.
RATHER: Thank you, Rachel.
MADDOW: Today, we have 24-hour, wall-to-wall cable news. One of the studios in which we sit right now which is a place for that. Network news is still in a model that essentially started with Walter Cronkite, the idea of a half hour evening network newscast. That hadn‘t been that way before, had it?
RATHER: No, it had not. It was a 15-minute evening news broadcast on NBC and CBS, the only two who, over the years, had an evening news broadcast. And beginning in roughly 1956, for the first time, in television news history, the combination of Huntley-Brinkley for NBC overcame CBS.
And I don‘t have to tell you that in the sweeps with the suits, on that the ratings dominate and so they decided to change the anchor, a man named Ernest Leiser, who is now deceased and former CBS correspondent. He and Richard Salant who was president of CBS News laid out a plan. How do we return to dominance?
And part of it was to change anchors. There was a lot of - I wouldn‘t say controversy. There was a lot of debate about whether the late Charles Collingwood or somebody else but they settled on Cronkite partly because Cronkite was a superb ad-libber. He was able to take air without a script and if you needed 15 minutes, he gave 15 minutes. If you needed 15 hours, he‘d give you 15 hours. And he was a very strong ad-libber.
The first thing they did was move from Douglas Edwards to Walter Cronkite. That was in roughly 1961, maybe as late as ‘62. It was as late as ‘62. Then, the idea of doing the half hour evening news broadcast had been around newsrooms for a long time.
But again, on the corporate side of things, people said, nobody‘s going to sit still for a half hour evening news broadcast. The public won‘t sit still for it. Our affiliates won‘t sit still for it. Much of the same arguments are given today about moving the present half hour evening news broadcast to an hour.
But the decision was made and Walter of course was a champion of it. And Ernest Leiser and Richard Salant said, “We‘ll go to a half hour.” So Walter Cronkite did the first network national half hour evening news broadcast. NBC followed pretty quickly behind that.
And then, he had milestones in between but the Kennedy - the evening news went to a half hour in 1962. President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. And Walter stayed on the air for I don‘t know how many hours during the Kennedy assassination. And he became associated in the public‘s mind with the Kennedy assassination.
He also became a very identified with the space program. Having said that Walter loved fast cars, fast boats, he loved space. He loved the idea of going to the moon.
Let me say as a footnote, I don‘t know if it has been said, Walter was a tremendous competitor. Yes, he was Uncle Walter. Yes, he had all the social graces and professional graces which made him a legend. But down where he lived, he was determined to win.
And everybody was climbing on the space program - “Life” magazine, NBC, everybody. But Walter - he became such a champion of the space program that, in many ways, he was seen as the extra astronaut. He went to Cape Canaveral and Florida, covered the space program. And so through most of the ‘60s, the new half hour CBS Evening News - it began to improve with the ratings, but it wasn‘t until the moon landing.
Again, Walter became identified in the public consciousness, and I think correctly so, by being the voice of the effort to put men on the moon. And it wasn‘t until sometime in 1969 that CBS and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite finally and definitively overcame NBC News and the Huntley-Brinkley report.
Probably too much television news history for most people, but here‘s the point - Walter Cronkite was the leader. And all the while he covered the Kennedy assassination, became the extra astronaut, identified with the space program, he led coverage of the civil rights movement.
RATHER: CBS News led in coverage of the civil rights movement. Walter was a tremendous champion of in-the-field coverage of the civil rights movement even when it was very unpopular.
And some CBS stations in the south, in the Deep South, refused to carry the broadcasts - declined to carry the broadcasts because the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was concentrating on Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
During the Vietnam War, again, Walter was a champion of covering the war. He always had, you know, deep concerns of whether it was the right thing and the right place for the right reasons. But he recognized that it was one of the defining stories of the decade, if not the half century. And he championed the total coverage of the Vietnam War.
But with the advent of the half hour evening news, which he was the first to do, the Kennedy assassination, civil rights, Vietnam War and then capped by - there were other people on the air were doing the moon-landing. But his was the most recognizable voice and the most admired voice on television news at that time.
What a decade for him. And the decade of the 1960s was the decade of the making of Walter Cronkite and the revival of CBS News. Then, all during the 1970s in which Walter scored, you know, one scoop after another. And how he loved a scoop.
You know, it‘s become a little trendy in journalism these days to say, “Well let‘s don‘t be too scoop-oriented.” Well, Walter wouldn‘t have any of that. He wanted to beat the competition.
And all during the ‘70s, he prevailed in the ratings, was dominant in the ratings. It may be worth noting, Rachel, because you live in a different world now, you in the 21st century, the new age television news. They had ratings in those days but ratings mattered far less.
Having said that, they certainly mattered to the corporate owners and operators and stations cared about ratings. But my recollection is even as late as the mid-to-late ‘70s, they might look at ratings once a week at most.
Now, you probably get them the next morning and probably minute by minute. But the point here is it was a different era. The standards that Walter Cronkite set, I would argue and I think the record clearly shows, are alive, perhaps not so well, to this day.
He was by any measurement a giant of the journalist‘s craft, a pioneer, an early pioneer in television news as a whole. Television news went through tremendous changes during Walter Cronkite‘s time - the advent of videotape, rapid and easy accessible jet travel, satellite communications. All of these came into being while Walter sat in the anchor chair and was that very likeable, trustworthy Uncle Walter.
MADDOW: Dan Rather is the former anchor of CBS Evening News. Please stay with us as we continue our coverage of the news tonight that the great Walter Cronkite has died at the age of 92. We will be right back.
MADDOW: Continuing now with our breaking news tonight, the death of legendary CBS News anchor, Walter Cronkite. Mr. Cronkite passed away at his home in New York at 7:42 p.m. Eastern at the age of 92.
Mr. Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. He famously became known as the most trusted man in America. As many as 18 million households tuned in every night to see Walter Cronkite‘s newscast. He passed away this evening after a long battle with cerebral vascular disease.
We‘re joined again in the studio now by Dan Rather, a friend and colleague of the late Walter Cronkite and, of course, his successor at the CBS Evening News. Mr. Rather, thanks for staying with us.
RATHER: Thank you.
MADDOW: When you started in 1981, when you were having those responsibilities handed off to you after 20 years of Walter Cronkite, holding that position at CBS and in the country, did he give you either advice or direction about what he expected from you at that time?
RATHER: well, he certainly gave me advice and direction because I sought it. I can‘t say he wouldn‘t have done it otherwise but I sought it and he did. But it wasn‘t the kind of advice and direction of whom I should try to become or how to handle it.
It was more along the lines of - that there‘s a tradition at CBS News that goes back to the early 1930s, a tradition that ran through the founder of broadcast news, if we knew it, Edward R. Murrow. And that was a tradition that - he hoped that I could uphold the tradition. He told me some of the problems he thought I would have.
MADDOW: A tradition defined by what, though? As opposed to things that he thought CBS might drift into if that tradition wasn‘t upheld to. What were the tenets of it?
RATHER: Well, the tenets of it, first of all, was to be the best. And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the best sense of that. We are the best. He was good about saying, “Because we are the best people such as you,” and he named other CBS News correspondents, “we want to be the best.”
He talked eloquently about the responsibility and to be passionately involved in the responsibilities of doing the CBS Evening News and things like, “This is not just another broadcast. This is important to the democratic process. It‘s important to a constitutional republic based on the principles of freedom of democracy. You know how we fit into that, Dan. And it‘s a public trust. And you should see it as a public trust.”
It has - one of the few times we talked about power. Yes, it has power. But with that power goes tremendous responsibility. I know this may strike some people as corny or they may say, did he say that? Well, first of all, he didn‘t really say those kinds of things and it wasn‘t corny at all. I took it seriously.
Keep in mind I had been a field correspondent under Walter Cronkite for the better part of 20 years. And I remember we had a conversation in either his library or living room when he lived on the upper east side of New York and later moved down to midtown close to the U.N.
And among the problems he said the business is changing. Satellite time had become far less expensive. It had been around for a while but it was expensive. It had become far less expensive. Jet travel was increasing. You could hop on a jet plane and get almost anywhere. CNN had been founded. And he was concerned about the rise of ABC News.
For a long time, it had been a two polar world in news - CBS and NBC. But under the late great Roone Arledge ABC was coming like a ton. I think that‘s the way Walter put it. And he said that you would (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You would have to try to be persuasive with your bosses and superiors because ABC is gathering a lot of resources. They‘re hiring a lot of good people.
And it was a version - these are my words, not his - a version of, “You‘re going to hear the patter of their little feet,” which is to say, “They‘re gaining on us and I know it.”
And he talked about what CBS News was, had been, was then, and he hoped it would continue to be, quote, “a hard news outfit.” Serious journalism - we‘re not serious about ourselves. Walter had a marvelous sense of humor by the way. We‘re not serious about ourselves. We are serious about our responsibilities to the public and this public trust.
He said that I shouldn‘t be reluctant to talk to William S. Paley, the old Paley who was the founder of CBS News and a great supporter of the news operation including being a tremendous supporter of having air space or a wall between the corporate interests and the news interests.
So he talked about all of those kinds of things. He encouraged me to be myself. I said to him because I meant it, “Walter, there is no way I can be another Walter Cronkite or a new Walter Cronkite. The best thing I can do is be the best Dan Rather I know how to be.”
And he said, “That‘s exactly the way you ought to be thinking.” And in the early stages when I first took over the “Evening News,” Walter left and my recollection is he went sailing for a while but he left. But we had lunch several times and he was always urging me to stay hard as in hard news.
RATHER: Resist the - what he already saw as the first - at least the first faint edges of the trivialization of news and warned me against it. We had those kinds of conversations.
MADDOW: I just received a statement that‘s been issued by the president on the passing of Walter Cronkite. It says, “For decades Walter Cronkite was the most trusted voice in America. His rich baritone reached millions of living rooms every night. And in an industry of icons, Walter set the standard by which all others have been judged. He was there through wars and riots, marches and milestones, calmly telling us what we needed to know. And through it all, he never lost the integrity he gained growing up in the heartland.
But Walter was always more than just an anchor. He was someone we could trust to guide us through the most important issues of the day, a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. He was family. He invited us to believe in him and he never let us down. This country has lost an icon and a dear friend and he will be truly missed.”
Joining us now by phone is the former anchor and managing editor of “Nightly News,” now NBC News, special correspondent Tom Brokaw. Mr. Brokaw thanks very much for joining us this evening. I appreciate it.
TOM BROKAW, NBC SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT (through telephone): Rachel, I‘m not going to go on if you refer to me as Mr. Brokaw. Listen, we‘ve all been hoping that this day would not come. But at the same time, no one can look back on Walter‘s life and have anything but an enormous sense of admiration.
And I think that Dan and I both have an enormous sense of gratification as well because Walter Cronkite set the standard, set the bar very high.
And we owe so much to those early pioneers of network news, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite and the people who put them on the air for taking this mission so seriously, establishing a standard when they did, and making sure that broadcast news would become as it has, I believe, such a critical element in American life. And no one personified that more than Walter Cronkite did.
MADDOW: Tom, when you think back over the types of milestones that Mr. Rather milestones was describing earlier, the Kennedy assassination, the space program, civil rights, Vietnam - all the things we associate this great voice of authority, this great voice of American authority with, what stands out to you in terms of broadcast excellence? In terms of setting that bar so high, being the gold standard in terms of integrity and broadcast excellence?
BROKAW: Well, I think two things. You left out the beginning of his career which is that he covered World War II. I wrote a piece for “The Washington Post” that I assume will appear tomorrow morning, in which I said no other journalist in American history had been at the center of so many historic stories as Walter Cronkite, going back to World War II, then being in Moscow, at the beginning of Cold War and then, of course, coming to America and becoming that most trusted figure.
I think would be very hard to single out one over another, Rachel. I think the great tribute to Walter was he was more than the sum of his parts. He was more than just one story that we always remember. Obviously, he played a critical role in the national dialogue on Vietnam.
When he went to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive and then came back and concluded it was a war that could not be won. And memorably, President Johnson said, “If I‘ve lost Walter Cronkite, I‘ve lost middle America.” That was a big step for Walter because as Dan has been saying, Walter was all news all the time.
And he really thought of himself, as I think it‘s fair to say from across the street where I was watching him, that he never lost that wire service of passion for just getting the news out to the American public and letting them make the right judgment. So that was a big step for him to do what he did about Vietnam.
And then, of course, he was there for Watergate, the resignation of the president, the landing on the moon. 1968, Dan gets wrestled to the ground at the 1968 Democratic National Convention of Walter Cronkite. It looked as if he was going to put down his microphone and to step out of the booth go - (UNINTELLIGIBLE) back-to-back with Dan against whoever was man-handling him.
So he someone that we could all identify with. I also loved his sense of adventure. He was a sports car racer and a sailor, obviously. He loved the idea of being in the middle of whatever was going on. And I think, Dan, that it‘s important that we also pay tribute to Bessie, his beloved wife of so many years, who had this wonderful, sardonic sense of humor.
If there‘s anything in life that I know Dan would agree with me, if there‘s an oxymoron, it is “humble anchormen,” which just don‘t exist amongst Walter, but began to pop up a little bit. Bessie had the best way, the lightest touch of just letting the air out of him at the right time.
MADDOW: Speaking of humbling, I have to say I am having a very humbling moment sitting here with Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather discussing the legacy of Walter Cronkite. I suddenly feel like I‘ve been brought out from the kid‘s table at thanksgiving.
But in terms of having you both here, there is one question that I‘d really love to hear both of your take on it. And Dan, I‘ll start with you - and that is the idea of the reporter-anchor, that the anchor who is not only from the world of reporting, but who brings reporting as their first and primary compass in terms of what drives their decision-making, about what makes the news and how they do it.
What‘s changed about that? What‘s different about the air of Walter Cronkite and how Cronkite defined that and what‘s happened now? What sort of distance have we traveled from the reporter-anchor as the gold standard?
RATHER: Well, I‘ll be very interested to hear what Tom has to say about this. But we traveled a long way from that. But I‘m happy to say that with the anchors of the present TV news broadcast, some of what Walter Cronkite pioneered, some of what made him the most trusted man in America, part of what made him a giant of journalistic craft by any measure, is that Walter - he didn‘t just play a reporter on TV.
He had been a reporter, wire service, newspaper reporter, combat correspondent before he ever came to television. And he never ceased being a reporter. And I‘ve touched on this before. I think the public recognized this. Walter loved reporting. He loved the news. He had a passion for it.
And I think the public recognized it in Walter Cronkite. The person bringing you the news was a person who, in large measure, was responsible for reporting the news. Among the many things he pioneered, Walter did pioneer the idea of the reporter-anchor.
This takes nothing away from Douglas Edwards who was his predecessor who was also a reporter-anchor. But Walter took that several steps beyond that. And as he left the anchor chair in 1980, he had sought and succeeded in taking the “CBS Evening News” to a lot of different venues, a lot of different datelines.
But the technology had not quite caught up with Walter‘s ambition, determination to bring in the news where the news is happening. By the time I came to the anchor chair in 1981, and Tom followed shortly after that at NBC News, that the technology was becoming such, with satellites - proliferation of satellites, less expensive satellite time, the first portable telephones - we didn‘t have cell phones at that time, but portable telephones.
And that sort of thing allowed the anchor to be much more moving around. Walter would have dreamed what we have been able to do, what we could do, by the mid and late ‘80s. The point here is he had started this tradition. I‘m not just going to sit in the studio. I‘m not going to be a hot house plant here and just come in and read the news. I‘m going to go where news is happening. And you know what, folks? When I get there, I‘m going to break some news.
MADDOW: Tom Brokaw, listening in on the phone here, do you feel like that is the distance, in a sense, that we have traveled in terms of the reporter-anchor, the idea of the anchor not only being the person who delivers you the news, but to a certain extent, the person who collects it as well?
BROKAW: Oh, I think that is true. And I think that Walter made that possible for Dan and our beloved colleagues, the late Peter Jennings as well. The three of us spent most of our time, not in the chair, but on an airplane to some business story. I remember in 1989, when the Soviet Union was collapsing around the world, Dan, Peter and I probably logged more overnight flights than any other reporter in history.
And what we were doing was continuing the legacy of Walter Cronkite. And as Dan rightly pointed out, we had all those new marvelous tools of technology to help us. So when we landed in some god-forsaken place in the middle of the night, there would be a small satellite dish that will allow us to get on the air.
And the three of us came from a reporting background. It was our instinct. And we came from that reporting background in part because we had grown up watching Walter Cronkite and that generation of people who brought to broadcast news their instincts for going out and just being a reporter.
MADDOW: Tom Brokaw is now an NBC News special correspondent. He‘s, of course, the former anchor of “NBC Nightly News.” Mr. Brokaw - Tom, it‘s very kind of you to have phoned in tonight to help us cover this. I really appreciate your time, sir.
BROKAW: Thank you, Rachel. If you‘ve got 20 more seconds, I‘ll tell you one quick story. I have just come from Yellowstone National Park with my grandchildren today. And when I was there, I was reminded of the story of Walter being there about eight years ago now in line of The Old Faithful Inn gift shop after he had done a documentary.
And there was a woman him and behind that woman was Bessie Cronkite. The woman right behind Walter tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You know, you look just like Walter Cronkite before he died.”
And Walter didn‘t know how to handle that. She turned to Bessie and said, “Walter Cronkite is dead, isn‘t he?” And Bessie said to the woman, “Well, if he isn‘t by now, he ought to be.” Tonight, the night, of course, we lost Walter Cronkite. I thought that he probably lingered as long as he did because he thought there was more big story for him to cover.
So Dan, here we are, joined once again on the news and talking about someone who is so important us. Thanks, Rachel, for having me on.
MADDOW: Tom Brokaw, thank you so much. And Dan Rather, friend and colleague of Walter Cronkite, his successor at the “CBS Evening News,” it‘s been invaluable to have you here tonight. I know it‘s an emotional and difficult day. Thank you so much.
RATHER: Rachel, thank you for having me.
MADDOW: Thank you very much for joining us tonight for our coverage of the death of Walter Cronkite. David Shuster will have more of our special coverage at the top of the hour. We leave you with the words of the most famous man in America, who each night brought Americans the news and the most famous sign off in America. Good night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER “CBS EVENING NEWS” ANCHOR: And that‘s the way it is, Monday, December 5th, 1977. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News, good night.
Good evening from Paris. Reporting from Moscow. From the Great Wall of China. Reporting from Madrid. This is Walter Cronkite (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the aircraft, somewhere over the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the “CBS Evening News.” For me, it‘s a moment for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless comes with some sadness. for almost two decades. After all, we have been meeting like this in the evenings and I‘ll miss that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
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