Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley chronicles legendary newsman Walter Cronkite’s life in ‘Cronkite’

Brinkley: The ‘most trusted man in America’ had an obsession with news reporting

In “Cronkite,” the first full-life biography of the legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, author Douglas Brinkley chronicles the life of one of the most influential news anchors in television history – a life that included formative years spent in Houston.

Douglas Brinkley

Douglas Brinkley

Brinkley, a Rice University history professor and a fellow at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, wrote the biography with the cooperation of Cronkite’s family. The book examines the newsman’s role in the latter half of the 20th century – from Vietnam and the space missions to reporting to the nation the death of President John F. Kennedy.

A historian for CBS News, Brinkley told “CBS This Morning” this week that “nobody knew whether television news was really going to work. Of course, we know it did. It took the country by storm in the Eisenhower era. Cronkite rose with the tide.”

Born in 1916, Cronkite grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, where his father worked as a dentist. He dropped out of the University of Texas during the Great Depression to take the first in a series of radio jobs in Oklahoma and Missouri.

Cronkite joined United Press International in 1937, and when World War II broke out, he covered battles in Africa and Europe, parachuted with the 101st Airborne into Holland and witnessed the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he covered the Nuremberg Trials.

In 1950 he joined CBS News, where he anchored the Sunday night news and the 1952 presidential conventions and hosted “You Are There,” a show that re-enacted historical events.

Cronkite became the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” in 1962. The 1963 assassination of Kennedy inserted Cronkite into the national consciousness, Brinkley said.

Other notable moments in his broadcast career included his 1968 declaration that the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate,” which President Lyndon Johnson thought moved national opinion, and his coverage of the moon landings.

Cronkite was “obsessed with news reporting,” and loved the wire services, Brinkley said on “CBS This Morning.” “He was like a jaguar, leaping to grab those wire reports. You’d have to elbow Walter to grab; he wanted the first crack at all of those.”

When he retired as anchor in 1981 at age 64, Cronkite was widely hailed as the “most trusted man in America.”

Brinkley said the idea for a definitive biography was triggered about nine years ago by fellow historian and friend David Halberstam. During a drive with Brinkley to the Louisiana Book Festival, Halberstam remarked that Cronkite was the most significant journalist of the second half of the 20th century, but no author had adequately tackled his life and times.

Brinkley has also authored books on Gerald Ford, Teddy Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter.

Publisher HarperCollins’ first printing of “Cronkite” counts 250,000 copies – a significant figure in today’s publishing world and a reflection of the newsman’s enduring popularity. “Cronkite” arrived in bookstores May 29.

Brinkley will discuss and sign “Cronkite” at 7 p.m. June 6 at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, 2412 Bissonnet St.

About Jeff Falk