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Sandy Socolow, Walter Cronkite's "right hand," dies at 86

Sandy Socolow speaks at the History Makers Award Ceremony at the History Makers Award Ceremony at the Marriott Financial January 18, 2008 in New York City.

Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for A&E

NEW YORK - Sanford "Sandy" Socolow, who as Walter Cronkite's right-hand played a key role in the anchorman's coverage of the biggest news of the 1960s and '70s, including the space launches, Vietnam War and Watergate, died Saturday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York from complications from a long illness. He was 86.

As the trusted lieutenant of "The Most Trusted Man in America," Socolow shared a news philosophy with the anchorman and enjoyed a special status behind the scenes at CBS News throughout Cronkite's reign in the anchor chair from 1962 to 1981. He held several positions during the Cronkite era -- co-producer and executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite," vice president of CBS News, in which he supervised all hard news programming, and Washington bureau chief -- but acting as liaison to the biggest television news star in the world put him in a unique and powerful position. It was a role he continued to play until Cronkite died in 2009.

Socolow began a 30-year career at CBS on the morning news as a writer in late 1956 and soon found himself writing for a midday news program fronted by the up-and-coming Cronkite. A lifelong relationship began between the two, both of whom had been foreign correspondents for news services - Cronkite for United Press and Socolow for International News Service. In 1958, Socolow and Cronkite bonded as the writer and reporter for the weekly CBS prime time news program "Eyewitness to History," a venture that took them around the world to report on big events.

After a short CBS sabbatical at Columbia University, Socolow rejoined the Evening News, where Cronkite had taken over the anchor chair in 1962. He was named co-producer, one of two deputies to the executive producer. Part of the anchorman's deal was he would be "managing editor," which gave him absolute control over the broadcast's content. The executive producer and others began to use Socolow as a go-between to resolve conflicts, such as getting the news-crunching Cronkite to make room for filmed pieces from the field.

For the next eight years, as Cronkite's star and ratings rose, and so did Socolow's influence. In charge of the broadcast's hard news coverage, he became its news engine, compiling a briefing of newsworthy stories each morning and driving the staff to get them to air. News from Vietnam became a staple during the period, all handled by Socolow, who was the stateside producer of Morley Safer's ground-breaking Cam Ne report of 1965 that showed U.S. Marines burning a Vietnamese hamlet.

In the 1967-68 season, the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" overtook its rival, NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report," and remained the most watched network nightly newscast for 20 years.

Socolow's duties included breaking news coverage during "instant news specials," producing Cronkite's coverage of events like the moon landing in 1969. He hired staff for the Evening News, including the broadcast's first female producer, Linda Mason, in 1971. Later that year, he was named vice president, deputy news director and executive editor of CBS News in New York, a position owing much to the integral role he played for Cronkite. The new title, in effect, made him the bureau chief in New York, a job that included oversight of other hard news broadcasts produced in the news division's headquarters. But his main focus remained Cronkite's Evening News, where he was in the middle of the decision in late 1972 to air the controversial two-part Watergate story. It was controversial because it took up the better part of two newscasts, despite containing no news, but it did summarize the complex story for a huge audience, transforming an episodic newspaper story into a monumental scandal.

In a palace power shift that was a lateral move for him, he was assigned to the Washington bureau as vice president CBS News Washington in early 1974. No longer at Cronkite's side, he still maintained his power and influence as the anchor's favored producer. With the Vietnam War winding down, the big news was out of Washington, where Socolow presided over the coverage of Nixon's resignation and the trials of the Watergate co-conspirators.

In another shift, he was brought back to New York in 1978 to become executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite." Back with his anchorman in New York, he took the reins of a broadcast being watched by an estimated 28 percent of all the American homes. Socolow told the Archive of American Television in 2008 that his greatest achievement was "to be the executive producer of the dominant news show with a circulation that would have made William Randolph Hearst twirl in his grave. The circulation of the Cronkite news when I left was bigger than the three network news shows combined today."

When Cronkite retired in 1981, Socolow remained in charge of the "CBS Evening News" with Dan Rather for nine months before being moved to London to become bureau chief, where he was overseeing all the news gathering in Europe and the Middle East. In 1984, he returned stateside and joined "60 Minutes," producing stories for, among others, Safer, Diane Sawyer and Harry Reasoner.

He left CBS News in 1988 and, for a few years, was the executive producer of " World Monitor," the Christian Science Monitor's nightly newscast on the Discovery Channel. Cronkite then named his friend executive producer of the company he formed in 1993, Cronkite-Ward Productions, which produced many award-winning hours for Discovery and PBS. Socolow was one of the featured speakers at Cronkite's funeral in New York's St. Bartholomew's Church in 2009.

Socolow was born in the Bronx, New York, on November 11, 1928. He got his start in journalism at the school newspaper at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He graduated from City College of New York in 1950, where he was the New York Times' campus stringer. After graduating, he joined the New York Times as a copy boy and was named a news clerk.

With that background, after graduating Officer Candidate School, Lt. Socolow wound up in an Army broadcasting unit in Tokyo and Korea during the Korean War. Using his connections made at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, he was hired by INS to be Far East correspondent, a dream job for a bachelor in his late 20s.

"It was just a terrific adventure and I loved every minute of it," he recalled in the Archive of American Television interview. He returned to New York in 1956 and began his broadcast television career as a writer on the "Mike Wallace and the News" show on WABD New York before joining CBS News later that year.

Socolow is survived by his brother, Alfred, two sons and a daughter - Jonathan, Michael, and Elisabeth. Socolow's marriage to the former Anne Krulewitch ended in divorce in 1977.