Only 25 years ago—in 1985–I sat down with magazine editor Bard Lindeman and spoke with Walter Cronkite about work, retirement, aging.
DH: You are said to be a tough competitor, even in family games. In fact, I’ve heard that you tend to make up games as you go along. Your wife said so.
WC: My wife is not trustworthy.
DH: How can you make up rules when you’re supposed to be such an ethical person?
WC: I make up rules only when I make up the game itself. I don’t try to change the rules that have been provided in the instructions….unless there’s a way I can improve them.
DH: Aha. I see. A perfectly ethical solution.
WC: I’ve started telling people I’m a widower just to keep them from interviewing my wife…she’s got a pixie sense of humor. Once, after Time interviewers finished a story about me, they decided I looked too cool, and nobody could be that cool. When they got toward the deadline and the fact checkers started working, they called us up in the middle of the night—at 2 AM Betsy answered. They said, “We can’t find anything that seems to bother your husband. Doesn’t anything worry him?”
Betsy said, “Yes, he worries about shrinking.” I never said anything like that in my life that I know of.
DH: No wonder you say she’s not trustworthy. Seriously, though, why do you think you’re so trusted by Americans?
WC: I think because, in doing my job in the news business, I really have held just as firmly as I could to what I believe to be the ethics and principles of good journalism. I have tried desperately, particularly in television, to hew to the middle of the road in the presentation of any given story—the pros and cons, allegations and denials—and to see that facts are well pinned down and secure. that is integrity in news presentation, and I guess that through the years that showed through. I was always annoyed when the presentation got in the way of the facts—and show business aspects. When graphics and pictures got in the way of telling the story, it was always a source of annoyance for me.
DH: You maintained a low profile as far as your own views are concerned. Do you feel freer now to say what you really feel?
WC: I think I’ve frequently surprised people with my views, but I don’t broadcast them. I don’t appear on panel programs and talk about them—I’m not seeking outlets for my views. On the other hand, when I’m called upon to make a public speech, I don’t try to disguise them.
DH: What annoys you about television news today?
WC: I do not think they make the best use of the limited amount of time that’s available to them. I think there is too much editorialization; too much “featurizing.” There is so much of importance to communicate to a population that’s getting most of its news from television that we shouldn’t spend the time doing anything except cramming news down their throats.
DH: Barbara Walters said in an interview recently that while she and Dan Rather are about the same age, she is considered the elder statesman, he the new kid on the block. I think that this is true because most of the women on TV news are youthful, whereas many of the men are a good deal older than Rather. Do you think there will be a time when a woman journalist’s credentials are more persuasive than her age?
WC. Oh yes, I think so. I was fortunate; when I came into this business it wasn’t as competitive, and it was possible to do more things the way one wanted to do them rather than being forced by some preconceived ideas of what the job is like. I made the job. I don’t know that there can be another Walter Cronkite, not because of my character and abilities, but because the position in time.
By the same token, there may not be a Ms. Cronkite. But as far as a woman’s gaining stature in the business, a stature equal to that which men gain in the business, I don’t see any hindrance to that at all. For one thing, I’m not one who believes women become less attractive as they grow older.
DH: But why is television so tough on women? Even 35-year-olds say that at 28 they’re over the hill for TV.
WC: Because television values are all cockeyed. The same is true of men; they are permitted to get older, certainly, but it gets tougher for them all the time. The local stations and networks are all looking for the young, the virile—they’re looking for tough, hard journalists.
DH: You were known for your equanimity on the air, but I remember a couple of times when the news was just too much for you. Do you remember any of these times?
WC: Yes, the [John F. Kennedy] death. I had to say that the official word from Dallas is, “He’s dead.” Definitely, that was a choking moment. And the emotion of a man landing on the moon was a momentary catch that I hadn’t expected. I think I had a tear in my eye at that moment. That was excitement.
DH: You’ve said you’d like to be that civilian voyager put aboard the space shuttle in 1985 or 1986.
WC: I want to but I haven’t applied. I don’t know who to apply to. They know of my interest and I like to think they’ll think of me.
DH: Of all the people you’ve interviewed, are there any you’ve particularly liked?
WC: I’m a little like Will Rogers.: I never met a man I didn’t like. Most leaders are interesting enough to be likable. They may not be warm personalities, but at least they have personalities that make it possible for them to achieve leadership. Even in dictatorships, people can’t lead unless they can persuade, convince and hold people to them—so you don’t find leaders who turn you off automatically. I never interviewed Stalin. I talked to him a few times, but at a distance. But I interviewed Tito, and I liked him. He had a sense of humor and boisterousness and certainly very interesting Third World ideas. Sadat, I think, is my favorite of them all.
WC: Courage. He had the courage of his convictions and his ideas. Personal courage, not just intellectual courage. It took quite a lot for him to make the overtures he made, and I just think it’s a shame that he couldn’t prevail over them.
DH: What worries you most about our lives now?
WC: A great deal worries me, but that’s a subject for a book. Maybe that is the book. I think we face four major mega-problems that are really so gross that we have trouble even conceiving of them, let alone tackling them.
I call it The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding down on the population: 1) pollution, 2) population, 3) depletion of natural resources—including fresh air and water—and 4)proliferation of nuclear devices. And any one of these can destroy the world.
The first one may very well. We were beginning to make some headway, but President Reagan is just turning his back on pollution and we’re not doing anything. We’ve given up that battle. We’ve only got this one ship of ours floating out there in space in a closed environment and using up the fresh air and fresh water and not doing anything to return it to the environment. I don’t see how in the world you can deny the situation.
And as for strength through the military, well it’s not what has given America its appeal in the world; it’s not in keeping with the banner and beacon of hope and the Statue of Liberty. People love the United States because of the dream of democracy and freedom. You can’t teach democracy through the sights of a helicopter gun ship.
DH: Are there any issues regarding growing older that you feel more strongly about now than you once did?
WC: I think there’s a noticeable lack of interest on the part of young people in the opinion of the older generation. I’ve talked to several business executives who are appalled by the fact that they’re not ever called back for consultation. The same thing happens in politics. As a practical matter, young people are making a mistake. They are determined to make all the mistakes all over again on their own, without taking advantage of accumulated wisdom.
DH: Anything else young people could learn from older people?
WC: Continued activity, continued participation in whatever business, commerce, politics, civic affairs, provides a source of wisdom for the young, if they want to make use of it.
DH: Any lessons people over fifty can learn about retirement?
WC: What happens to a lot of older people, if their expertise and area of interest is very narrow, is that they feel they become less the minute they step away from their desk or their identity. I think happiness in older age and retirement is in direct relation to diversity of interest. I think that the serious problem is with the individual who has a single interest—in a shoe store, or whatever—and then retires from it and is completely lost. Fortunately—and this is one of the great things about being a newsman—my interests are universal, so there’s no reason why my expertise has to end. The news is still engulfing me. I’m still out seeing people, meeting people and getting around.
DH: So people without a diversity of interests ideally could find new ones once they retire.
WC: Searching out new interests is not a bad suggestion at all. Take reading, for instance; a lot of people have lost the ability to read. The public library in almost every town is filled with hours and days and months and years of amusement and entertainment.
DH: Do you miss being in the limelight?
WC: No. That was never that interesting to me. It’s hard to sell that idea to anybody, but it’s true. it’s not performing that I’m interested in, but the daily news. I love the excitement of the breaking news story and thinking with a printer at my elbow—that I miss. Other than that, the freedom of time has given me a new kind of life I had hoped for and one that I like very much.
DH: But you still have more freedom to look forward to.
WC: Yes. I haven’t achieved all of it yet, I mean sensed the real freedom. I still have too many people asking me to do things that I have to excuse myself from and I book some of them, and that is always a burden.
DH: Do you do as much physical activity as you did years ago?
WC: Maybe more. I have more time. There were long periods when I didn’t do any physical activity at all—play tennis, sail or anything. In the early days of my career I was too busy to participate in any sporting activity. I really wasn’t—I could have made time for it—but we weren’t as physical-culture conscious in those days, either.
DH: Do you have any final touch of wisdom to impart before I go?
WC: My motto is, “Everything, but everything in moderation”…something I don’t participate in!”