Walter Cronkite: The "maestro" of news

Walter Cronkite on the air for CBS News
Photo courtesy of the Walter Cronkite Papers, the Briscoe Center for American History.

(CBS News) On "Face the Nation," CBS News contributor and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley spoke about his new, detailed biography of long-time journalist Walter Cronkite, saying he was the "maestro of it all."

The new book, titled "Cronkite" (which is to be released Tuesday), depicts the legendary newsman from his humble childhood, where he started in the news business as a newspaper delivery boy, through his years as a wire reporter covering World War II, to the decades he spent at CBS until his final broadcast in 1981.

During his career, Cronkite interviewed every president from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. He covered the Kennedy assassination and space exploration. He famously called the Vietnam War a stalemate when he returned from there in 1968, after which President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

"Cronkite was the guy you turned to," Brinkley said of his subject. "Every night he was in your living room. They call Vietnam the living room war. The politicians didn't adjust quickly to what television actually meant.

"Whether it was fighting for civil rights or Vietnam or space, which became our national pageant, Cronkite seemed to be the maestro of it all," Brinkley added.

The 667-page book equates Cronkite with shaping the format of broadcast news to capturing Americans' trust. However, the biography does not always paint Cronkite in a positive light. The book discusses challenges with his predecessor Edward R. Murrow.

Brinkley told host Bob Schieffer - who looked up to Walter Cronkite when he was an up-and-coming journalist at CBS - that Cronkite and Murrow's dislike for each other began when Cronkite was a young wire reporter with United Press during World War II and Murrow asked him to join CBS.

"Cronkite went back to his hotel in London and suddenly [he] had to tell the bosses there in New York and they said, 'You're not quitting, we'll get you more money,'" Brinkley said. "He reneged on Murrow, and Murrow never really forgave him for it."

Brinkley added that after Cronkite finally did come to CBS, Murrow and Cronkite had different philosophies. "Murrow didn't believe in live coverage. He demurred on the '52 [political] convention, for example, thinking it would be more of an infomercial, where Walter seized the day. So Cronkite became the voice of TV in the '50s, where Edward R. Murrow started floundering."

Brinkley said the era Cronkite reported in is much different than the world of journalism today. President Johnson, for example, "would call Cronkite directly after a broadcast to complain about something. But it was really that World War II generation of reporters - 'We're all in this together, we fought together and we're trying to make America good.'"

In his column in Newsweek, journalist Howard Kurtz said that after reading the biography, "I came to realize that the man who once dominated television journalism was more complicated - and occasionally more unethical - than the legend that surrounds him."

However, Brinkley said that relationships between presidents and the press began to change after Vietnam and Watergate.

"It became a war against the Fourth Estate, and who won? The media: Woodward, Bernstein and Walter Cronkite. And so presidents have gotten skeptical of the press," Brinkley said.

He described the relationship between them now as "very antagonistic."

  • Leigh Ann Caldwell On Twitter»

    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for