As a two-year-old, so the family story goes, I would ask my mother to hang a map on the wall behind me while I shuffled papers in my small hands at a desk, pretending to be Walter Cronkite. Around that same time, maybe a little later, when I was visiting my grandfather’s farm implement store in the Bible Belt, one of the mechanics in the shop was left dumbfounded when he asked me what my favorite TV show was, and I said, apparently without hesitation, “Walter Cronkite.”
I’ll stipulate that those anecdotes, which I have no direct memory of, probably say more about what a hopelessly geeky kid I was than they do about Cronkite or his influence. But it does give you a sense of his place in the American home in the 1970s.My own memories of Cronkite, who went off the air when I was 11 years old, are tangled up with memories of my dad: the excitement of him coming home from work, the smell of his pipe (Cronkite smoked one, too), sitting with him on the sofa watching the CBS Evening News while mom bustled about in the kitchen. Cronkite was embedded in the routine of the day like the family dinner was. We always ate at 6 p.m., because that’s when the news ended.
But what I remember most was watching my dad looking out on the world through the window that Cronkite offered, courteously pulling aside the curtains for us. I was, and remain, enchanted by the notion that there were big things happening out there beyond the horizon, exciting things, important things.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with journalism. Rejecting it, then falling into it by happenstance, then leaving it, then returning to it. It’s always seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to do, but I have never been able to escape the nagging sense that I’m somehow settling, taking the easy route, doing the obvious. I feel a kinship with those who struggle with whether to go into the family business, their resistance to having a destiny that is not their own. But my dad wasn’t a journalist. No one in my family was. Except that Uncle Walter.