Cronkite Set To Ring In New Year

This will mark the 20th year that Cronkite, a classical music enthusiast who grew up "conducting" to records played on the Victrola in his room, has hosted the American broadcast of the concert.
If there was ever a time to grant Walter Cronkite a pass on his annual New Year's trip to Vienna, this would be it.

Less than a week before he was due to board a plane to prepare for the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day concert, the 87-year-old broadcasting legend is in a New York hospital bed recovering from foot surgery.

No matter. Cronkite even uses his recovery time to invite a visitor into his hospital room to talk about the PBS broadcast.

This will mark the 20th year that Cronkite, a classical music enthusiast who grew up "conducting" to records played on the Victrola in his room, has hosted the American broadcast of the concert. Check local listings for broadcast times.

Cronkite has become as much a New Year's tradition as Dick Clark and the late bandleader Guy Lombardo.

"Not quite the same hour," he said. "The Guy Lombardo set are already nursing their headaches."

The program, in the Austrian capital's Musikverein concert hall, is a light concert of mostly waltzes and polkas composed by Johann or Joseph Strauss. Riccardo Muti of Milan is this year's guest conductor.

It's a big tradition in Europe, where families plan parties around it, Cronkite said. For several years it was the most-seen TV broadcast in the world, losing that distinction because it is no longer shown in China.

Along with loving the music, Cronkite and his wife, Betsy, appreciate the chance to renew acquaintances from his years in Europe as a war correspondent before becoming a CBS News anchor.

He recalled telling friends in the Netherlands, where he was stationed for a few years, when he was chosen host of the concert.

"For the first time, they looked at me with awe," he said. "Up to then, they really didn't know what I did in life."

In between introducing musical numbers, Cronkite presents an Austrian travelogue. This time, he'll visit Vienna's Albertina Museum and its collection of paintings by 16th century German artist Albrecht Durer.

Cronkite does his last filming the morning of the show at the concert hall, sitting in the balcony with a carefully chosen camera angle showing the venue's decorations but not the still-empty seats.

He and Betsy then enjoy the show. They've learned to sit far back, away from camera angles; one year he was caught on camera watching from one of the front rows - mere seconds after viewers saw him introduce the song from the balcony.

"It's a lesson in conducting and a lesson in musicology to see all of these great conductors once a year," he said. "Each has his own style and you really begin to learn how each gets a little something different out of the orchestra."

Now nearly 23 years after retiring from the CBS Evening News - he regrets leaving too soon - Cronkite still has a contract with the network. It requires little more from him than being a living legend on call.

He narrates the occasional documentary for PBS and others, but most of his working time is spent with speaking engagements and writing a syndicated newspaper column.

His column is carried regularly in about 130 newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Portland Oregonian. After years of maintaining journalistic objectivity, Cronkite is writing an unabashedly liberal opinion column, and generates hundreds of e-mails when he criticizes the Bush administration.

"It's a different feeling, being able to say what I feel," he said. "I've gone from the most trusted man in America to one of the most debated."

Cronkite splits most of his time between homes in New York and Martha's Vineyard.

His surgery was to repair an old Achilles tendon injury. Cronkite has a definite goal in mind.

"It's kept me off the tennis court for three years and I'm bitter about it," he said. "I hope to be back on the court this summer."

By David Bauder