I can’t add much to the list of eloquent obituaries for Walter Cronkite, other than to say I agree with them.
Cronkite taught all of us the way things were. But the passing of the man known universally as The Most Trusted Man in America also offers us one last chance to learn from him.
Like obscenity, trust is awfully hard to define; but as Justice Potter said, you can recognize it when you see it.
The definition of trust is even more contextual; there are dozens of meanings of trust, yet we nearly always recognize them when we see them.
And so: when so many people from so many eras and walks of life agree that Walter Cronkite was TMTMA—he must have touched more than a few trust bases. What were they?
Reading the encomiums in his honor—and watching the raw man-in-the-street interviews Friday night—there is a clear hierarchy of what people meant when they said they trusted Walter Cronkite. And it wasn’t fluffy—it was very clear.
Cronkite’s Big Three Trust Factors
#1 – Honesty. The most frequent comment, expressed in several ways, was that Cronkite was honest. This means not just that he didn’t tell lies, but that he was a truth-seeker—he sought to tell the whole truth. A reporter of the old school, he believed that there was such a thing as the truth, and his job was to find it. He had no truck with deconstructionists who believe it’s all subjective, he was a midwest pragmatist of the William James school. "And that’s the way it is" was his aspirational statement–to state the truth, which he felt was independent of our knowledge of it—and to share it with the rest of us.
#2 Selflessness. The Most Trusted Man in America didn’t get there by calling himself the Most Trusted Man in America. Not a hint of self-promotion, no self-serving cause, no work in service to his own ego or career. His only agenda was his professionalism, about which he was quite clear.
#3 Integrity. He kept his opinions, like his emotions, largely to himself. This he saw as a natural outgrowth of professional principles; it also fit his personality like a glove. He was television’s version of Gary Cooper—stoic, his own man, capable under stress of expressing deep feelings—but in a highly controlled manner. He kept his own counsel; until and unless he felt there was no alternative but to share it.
It was this Cooper-like reserve that gave him such power on the few occasions he did weigh in with a Big Opinion. LBJ, a great judge of politics, said, "If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America." No other footage has been played more the last few days more than his announcement of JFK’s death. In a world saturated with reality TV and tell-all blogs, you have to look harder to see it—that sense of self-reserve, tough but with a soft center—that used to be middle America’s ideal self-image. But you can still see it.
And one last thing. His voice. A baritone drenched in overtones conveyed each of those character traits.
Of those attributes—honesty, selflessness, integrity, and vocal cords—perhaps it’s only his voice that we cannot aspire to. That may have been god-given; the rest of him was a man who strove to be good, and who showed the rest of us how.
We can all still learn from him.