Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite, the iconic television news anchor whose steady delivery and dignified bearing during turbulent times led him to be known as “the most trusted man in America,” died Friday after a long illness. He was 92.

Mr. Cronkite died at 7:42 p.m. at his Manhattan, N.Y., home surrounded by his family. The cause of his death was cerebrovascular disease, his longtime chief of staff, Marlene Adler, told the Associated Press.

The baritone-voiced broadcaster took the helm of the “CBS Evening News” in 1962 and became the face of American news for two tumultuous decades. Over the course of his celebrated career, he broke the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, reported extensively on the Vietnam War and Watergate, and announced that a man had walked on the moon.

“He was a great broadcaster and a gentleman whose experience, honesty, professionalism and style defined the role of anchor and commentator,” said CBS Corp. Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves.

President Obama said Friday that Mr. Cronkite “set the standard by which all others have been judged.”

“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,” said Mr. Obama. “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.”

Mr. Cronkite was the first television broadcaster to be called “anchor,” a title coined for him in his role as coordinator of CBS’ coverage of the 1952 Democratic and Republican national conventions. His name literally became synonymous with “anchorman” in Sweden, where broadcast anchors are known as “Kronkiters,” and in Holland, where they’re “Cronkiters.”

Mr. Cronkite helped “define the job,” former CNN anchor Aaron Brown, who covered the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and later hosted the network’s “NewsNight,” told The Washington Times .

“I think the rest of us, quite honestly, followed his script,” Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Cronkite’s signature sign-off line, “And that’s the way it is,” was one of the most instantly recognized television phrases of the day, right up there with “Here’s Johnny!”

His straightforward Midwestern persona and intrinsic decency made him the ideal messenger for an era of bad news. In his signature broadcast, he took of his glasses and blinked back tears as he informed grief-stricken Americans that their young president had been shot in Dallas.

Six years later, he could barely contain his sense of awe and wonder as astronaut Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. “He had a passion for human space exploration, an enthusiasm that was contagious, and the trust of his audience. He will be missed,” Mr. Armstrong said of Mr. Cronkite on Friday.

Mr. Cronkite maintained a lifelong interest in space exploration, narrating an IMAX film about the space shuttle and covering astronaut John Glenn’s return to space after 30 years. In 2006, he was honored by NASA as an Ambassador of Exploration, the only non-astronaut or NASA employee to receive the award.

His tenure as anchor came during the golden age of network news. His rivals at NBC during the 1960s were the celebrated tandem of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, whose popularity prompted CBS to experiment with the anchor team of Robert Trout and Roger Mudd at the 1964 presidential conventions.

Viewers immediately balked, flooding CBS with letters protesting the switch. By 1967, Mr. Cronkite had overtaken NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley team in the ratings, a lead he maintained until his retirement in 1981, according to CBS News.

A 1972 poll showed that Mr. Cronkite was more trusted than the president, the vice president, members of Congress and other prominent journalists. The survey led him to be dubbed “the most trusted man in America,” a description that stuck.

Mr. Cronkite may have helped shape the outcome of the 1968 presidential election when he returned from reporting in Vietnam and announced that “the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America,” and soon after declared that he would not seek re-election.

After his retirement, Mr. Cronkite was more outspoken about his political views. He condemned President George W. Bush for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he supported President Bill Clinton during his 1998 impeachment trial.

In 1984, Arizona State University named its journalism department after Mr. Cronkite, who became intimately involved in decisions big and small.

He helped the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication choose its leadership, develop its curriculum and build a $71 million building that opened last year in downtown Phoenix, said Assistant Dean Kristin Gilger.

Painted on the wall at the new facility in giant letters is the phrase, “And that’s the way it is.”

“He always spent time with students when he was here. He was very involved,” Mrs. Gilger said. “I can’t even really imagine this school without him.”

Mr. Cronkite is survived by two daughters and a son. His wife Betsy died of cancer in 2005 after nearly 65 years of marriage.

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