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The Reluctant Retiree

Being Walter Cronkite is still a full-time job.

THE CRONKITE HOUSE SITS on a low bluff across an expanse of manicured lawn from Edgartown's inner harbor. Past the private dock below the house, boats motor between Katama Bay and Nantucket Sound. Walter Cronkite, wearing Martha's Vineyard uniform of the day -- short-sleeve cotton shirt and khaki trousers over top-siders -- descends from his upstairs office, apologizes for being two minutes late, and announces: "I'm going after Ashcroft."

Cronkite has spent the morning banging away at the political column he writes, and banging away, by extension, at the United States attorney general. His beef is with the national speaking tour that John Ashcroft has announced, a road show intended to counter what the Justice Department describes as the spread of "misinformation about the Patriot Act" by certain people "inside the Beltway."

"Come on," says Cronkite, in that resonant baritone that generations of Americans identify as readily as they identify the flag. "Indignation about the Patriot Act is widespread throughout the nation. He knows that damn well."

It has been only five days since the biggest blackout in North American history, and Cronkite has already filed a column addressing the twin forces of electric and political power. As late as yesterday, backing up that piece, he was trading phone calls with former energy secretary Bill Richardson, the current governor of New Mexico. Today, he is tackling the Bush administration's public impatience with intellectual midgets like James Madison and the proposition that patriotism somehow is compatible with the Bill of Rights.

Turning out regular copy again for the first time in a couple of decades, Cronkite, 86, appears to have lost none of the reporter's skills that he honed for half a century. Yet, though the work seems to come to him effortlessly, the new column, which began appearing in August, is driving him nuts. "I get mad at myself when I'm sitting there trying to write, and I want to recall a specific statement, a specific fact, a name, and it doesn't come immediately," he says. "I hate to have to research something that ought to be right there at the press of a little button in my mental computer."

The occasional failure of memory is a symptom he attributes to "the usual decline of old age," a condition that has not cost him his sense of humor. "There are certain little advantages," he admits. "People assume you have wisdom that you don't necessarily have -- simply because you're there for a long time -- so punditry comes easy."

As if to illustrate his point, Cronkite asks permission to turn on his own tape recorder. "I might write myself a column, even as we speak. It would be a shame if I pontificate," he observes, laughing at himself, "and don't remember what I've said."

THE SIGHT AND SOUND OF WALTER CRONKITE -- the face, the voice, the name itself -- have about them an almost subliminal familiarity. So deeply is an awareness of him encoded in the nation's collective consciousness that the response is There was a time when, if for some reason Walter Cronkite did not remember what he said, there There was a time when, if for some reason Walter Cronkite did not remember what he said, there almost instinctive. It is a lot like that flash of recognition you experience the first time you see Mount Rushmore.

There was a time when, if for some reason Walter Cronkite did not remember what he said, there would be, in a matter of seconds, a good 10th of the population ready to remind him. Arguably the most identifiable newsman of his era, Cronkite emerged as the preeminent witness to history in what we know as the American Century. When, night after night for almost 20 years, he closed his broadcast of the CBS Evening News with the signature sign-off "And that's the way it is," you could pretty well be certain -- you and millions of other Americans -- that that was the way it was.

Today, Cronkite relies on hearing aids, and he limps from a three-year-old injury that a younger man might have recovered from more rapidly. But the dignity, gravity, and quiet decency commonly associated with longevity are attributes Cronkite has exhibited since he was half the age he is now.

It can be argued that Cronkite was avuncular even as a young man. To say that he has not changed a lot in the 40 years since bringing the nation news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is probably not paying much of a compliment to the man once known affectionately as "Uncle Walter." What is reassuring, however, is that as he makes his way back into daily journalism, stepping into a news environment that since his departure has undergone a radical, if not particularly flattering, makeover, nothing else about him has changed, either. He still exemplifies values that, notwithstanding the near death of civil discourse in the national conversation, will never be out of date.

Cronkite entered the field as a print reporter in the 1930s. He covered the Second World War as a correspondent for United Press. In 1950, he went to work for CBS television, where, using skills he had developed working in radio earlier in his career, he proved a natural on the air. After making a name for himself providing the network's coverage of the national political conventions in the 1950s, he replaced Douglas Edwards as anchor of the Evening News in 1962. He competed for audience share with Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and John Chancellor at NBC and Frank Reynolds at ABC. The first among equals (and of that company now the last man standing), Cronkite led in the ratings throughout most of his tenure, which ended with his retirement in 1981.

Time magazine in 1966 described Cronkite as "the single most convincing and authoritative figure in television news," an assessment the public soon came to share. He served as managing editor as well as anchor of the Evening News, and being responsible for its content, he inevitably shaped the nation's perception of historical events. In a leadership survey conducted by US News & World Report midway through his tenure, he was the only journalist to be noted among the top 10 "most influential decision makers in America."

One of the more memorable manifestations of his influence followed a special report on the 1968 Tet offensive after his second trip to war-torn Vietnam. Closing the broadcast with an editorial, Cronkite advised that the nation was "mired in a stalemate" and urged a negotiated settlement to the conflict. After watching the telecast, President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to his aide Bill Moyers, "flipped off the set and said: 'If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America.' "

Such was Cronkite's standing at CBS that in 1973, eight years before his retirement, he entered contract negotiations with a single demand. On the verge of being the first television news anchor to earn $1 million a year (a distinction that later went to Barbara Walters, when she was recruited by ABC), Cronkite said he did not want a raise. Instead, he wanted three months off every year to sail his boat and spend time with his three children.

"They said, 'That's impossible,' " Cronkite remembers. "I said, 'Well, then, I might have to find some other occupation.' "

For the last eight years of Cronkite's stewardship, Roger Mudd anchored the CBS Evening News in the summer.

Cronkite, if no longer on the news, still manages to remain in it. And there is probably no better illustration of how he is publicly perceived and how he perceives himself than his part in the recent debate over the proposed construction in Nantucket Sound of the United States' first offshore wind farm. Cronkite had stood in highly visible opposition to the proposal for more than a year.

"I am not opposed to wind farms, to wind energy," he said in August, identifying himself as a conservationist and environmentalist. "I do say, however, we should not accept [the proposal] without considerable investigation. I'm opposed to it until I'm assured the Army Corps of Engineers is going to conduct a thorough study of the necessity of its being in this particular location."

What happened next took on the character of a morality play. A little more than a week after making those remarks, after meeting with the project's developers, Cronkite led the regional news by backing off from his position and describing opposition to the project as "premature." Expressing discomfort with having been adopted as "the spokesman for their cause," he asked organized opponents of the project to pull advertising spots using his name and image.

Cronkite's opposition to the wind farm had clearly caused him considerable torture. Wrestling with the issue, he castigated himself -- in every interview he granted and in every piece he wrote -- for coming down on the side of self-interest.

"At the moment I've picked up that selfish phrase: 'Not in my backyard,' " he wrote in his column on the blackout. "It bothers me a great deal that I find myself in this position," he told The New York Times Magazine.

But unlike other prominent opponents, including politicians, who had homes on the ocean, Cronkite was not in fact an abutter. Not even from the window of his attic office can one see that part of Nantucket Sound where the wind farm may someday be located. Furthermore, Cronkite, an avid sailor who had plied the local waters for 35 years, no longer owned a boat. He had recently donated his 60-foot ketch to charity.

His response to the project had been an emotional one, his opposition offered in heartfelt payment of a debt he felt he owed to a resource, Nantucket Sound, that had given him so much pleasure. And when he lent his name to the effort, people naturally took notice; he was trusted as a reporter who thoroughly investigated every issue, sought to understand all points of view. In the case of the wind farm, however, Cronkite had neglected to do that, and he came to realize he had misspent the professional capital acquired over the course of his career. Quoted in The Boston Globe on the change in his position, he said: "I will confess that I did not do my own homework, as I should have before making the statements."

In the end, his position on the project's merits was overshadowed by his publicly changing his mind. He proved himself a journalist whose integrity is far more important to him than any potential affront to his celebrity.

Cronkite maintains an office at CBS's New York headquarters, where five people, four of them network employees, work exclusively for him. As a special correspondent for the network, he has hosted a series of documentaries, and he works independently of CBS as well, as a narrator and correspondent on documentaries produced by others (with the exception of the major networks).

In 1993, with one of his network producers, Cronkite established his own documentary film company, which, until it closed this year, produced programming for such outlets as the Discovery Channel and PBS. In his documentary work, he insists on full approval of more than his narration. "I approve every word of the script," he says, adding that he frequently rewrites.

Cronkite honors, without soliciting them, between 15 and 20 speaking engagements a year. Half the work is philanthropic. At events organized around issues that are important to him -- world hunger, the global environment, the First Amendment, for example -- he appears gratis, often paying his own expenses. The other half consists of paid engagements, corporate conferences and the like, his $100,000 appearance fee putting him in a category with the foremost speakers in the country.

The hours Cronkite spends every week in his network office are dedicated largely to the granting of interviews, to the business of just being Walter Cronkite. But his fame is difficult to measure, and it manifests itself in odd ways. Not until he signed on to provide the voice of Ben Franklin, for instance, did a raft of celebrities scramble to be part of Liberty's Kids, the animated PBS children's series on the American Revolution. Cronkite's autobiography, A Reporter's Life, published seven years ago, topped The New York Times bestseller list for 13 weeks. His column, launched in August, is syndicated nationally in 109 newspapers.

At least one commentator has proved inhospitable to the arrival of Cronkite's editorial voice on the political scene. Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, who has called Cronkite the "poster boy for the elite media," recently took issue with Cronkite's criticism of the Bush administration, specifically its handling of Iraq.

"In that particular piece," Cronkite says of the newspaper column in which O'Reilly's remarks appeared, "he damned me for being an internationalist. And so my retort is, I guess that makes him a nationalist," a designation embraced in modern history by numerous dictatorships. "They all claim to be nationalist," Cronkite says, having some fun with the notion, naming the National Socialists of Germany's Third Reich as one example.

Cronkite, who shakes off critics like O'Reilly the way a thoroughbred shakes off flies, is temperamentally incapable of the invective that characterizes talk TV. "His is a political diatribe, and it's recognized as such," Cronkite says of O'Reilly, and thus, to Cronkite's way of thinking, it is perfectly defensible. "That's an opinion piece, and he has a right to his opinion."

It is in discussing television as an entertainment medium, and the problem that presents for news people, that Cronkite has reason later to regret having neglected to flip the cassette in his tape recorder.

"I think those three guys are exceedingly talented," he says of the anchors on the three major networks, "and exceedingly good journalists. They are just as objective as I tried to be. But I think they are handicapped considerably by being known as celebrities. When you get into that kind of a salary category, and you are in a medium that is mostly entertainment, it is very hard not to be thought of as an entertainer."

Hearing his last sentence, he ruefully eyes the idle tape recorder and shakes his head. "That's about as concise as I've ever been."

Cronkite, whose own celebrity, he suggests, had "a little different cast to it," agrees that in the glow of fame today, one surrenders a more durable attribute: authority.

As for television itself, the colossus he helped to erect, he is measured in his criticism. "One of the great tragedies of our country," he says, "is that television and radio have driven out of business so many newspapers. They have cut up the advertising dollar in communities so many ways that only one newspaper can exist, and unfortunately neither radio nor television has taken the place of [those newspapers]. This has left us with an information gap that is a serious danger to our democracy."

The half-hour national television news package, which contains 19 minutes of actual news, he says, has raised the floor but lowered the ceiling.

In that amount of time, "there is absolutely no way to adequately cover a nation as complicated and complex as ours or a world as complex as the one in which we now claim leadership. So while we [broadcasters] may have gotten into homes where they have never read a newspaper and elevated them to some degree, we've put a cap on the knowledge, and the crawl space between that cap and that floor is so thin."

Cronkite and his wife of 63 years, Betsy, have been summering on the Vineyard for three decades. In the years that have passed since his CBS contract negotiations, his priorities have not changed. "The children visit every year," Cronkite says. "That's why we have this place. Its principal purpose is my getting to spend the summer weeks with my grandchildren."

Why, then, is he working this summer? Why take on a weekly column? "I am equally upset with the Democrats as I am with the Republicans," he says, conceding that today's politics make him angry. "I would like to see a little more statesmanship from both parties. We're lacking in a kind of political courage that is required in a situation as difficult as we're in today, internationally and domestically."

But his sense of concern, while legitimate, was only peripheral to his decision. His real motivation lay somewhere else. "I tell you, I sit here on this porch where we're sitting today, looking out on the Edgartown harbor, over at the moorings, the anchorages out there, and all these beautiful boats. Mine used to sit right out there, a 60-footer," he says, pointing to a mooring about 25 yards off the dock. "And I still . . . It's a real phenomenon that I really see my boat out there. I look out there, and I see that boat sitting there." Cronkite chokes back tears. "And I miss it."

Cronkite played tennis every morning until three years ago, when he was sidelined by a torn Achilles' tendon and then the surgery to repair it. Hobbling around in the tradition of Ahab and Long John Silver, Cronkite sailed the boat for a single summer after his surgery, but not comfortably, and "not without trepidation," he says. "I couldn't climb around the way I like. I couldn't take charge in an emergency. My leg just wouldn't give me that liberty." So in a "violent reaction to incapacity at the moment," he donated the boat to charity.

And that explains why he is knocking out 650 words a week. "I took up the column because I don't have the boat to be on anymore. I needed something to keep me busy. I'm not saying I want to be totally retired, that would never be my intention," he says, but "I would not be doing the column if I could still be out there sailing and playing tennis every day."

The repair of the tendon resulted in what today, three years later, persists as an open wound. Cronkite blames his impatience with the tedious exercise therapy prescribed as a follow-up to his surgery for the slow pace of his recovery. That he is pushing 90 does not help matters, Cronkite says his doctor tells him.

"Well, I dislike it as much as anyone," he says, when asked how aging has affected him. "I dislike that my eyesight isn't as good as it was. And I really am very much disturbed over the loss of hearing; that has become quite severe, as you can tell."

Still Cronkite is able to claim, "This is the best summer I ever had. We had 'em all up here at once." And like any proud paterfamilias, he begins bragging about his grandchildren.

Stacked on the desk in Cronkite's office are printouts of hundreds of e-mails generated by his column's first two installments.

"I got a lot of 'em," he says, sifting through the stack. "I like this one: 'I need you and your views, stay with it.' If they were all that short, I could read 'em all. . . . Boy, there are a lot of them don't like that liberalism in the press [column]. . . . Here's somebody who wants me to run for president."

Robert Sabbag is the author of "Snowblind," "Smokescreen," and other books.

Walter Cronkite at his home in Edgartown. Walter Cronkite at his home in Edgartown. (Photo / Stephen Rose)
Cronkite reports political news from CBS's no-frills desk in July 1952. Cronkite reports political news from CBS's no-frills desk in July 1952. (AP File Photo)
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