Ben Bradlee Remembers Walter Cronkite

I first encountered Cronkite on the telly. He was the father figure of television journalists; he had no rival except for maybe Brinkley. But Cronkite had a kind of paternal quality that made him different from David, and that is what set him apart. He was a great-white-father type—not quite that, because that connotes doddering, which he never was, but he was the dean. He was the big cheese.

In October 1972, Cronkite devoted two segments, back to back, to the Watergate story. The first was 14 minutes, the second eight. I think that second night was curtailed by CBS chairman William S. Paley because Paley was scared of it. The fact that Cronkite did Watergate at all (let alone at that length) gave the story a kind of blessing, which is exactly what we needed—and exactly what The Washington Post lacked. It was a political year, and everyone was saying, "Well, it's just politics, and here's the Post trying to screw Nixon." We were the second-biggest newspaper in the country trying to scramble for a good story—whereas Cronkite was the reigning dean of television journalists. When he did the Watergate story, everyone said, "My God, Cronkite's with them."

It was a hard story to do on television. There were no documents. There was no smoking gun. There was nothing visual. So they showed the pages of The Washington Post. That was the glory of it—the secondary glory. They made heroes out of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein and even me, to a lesser extent. It was a big deal. You could feel the change overnight. I'm not saying that the country felt the impact. A little more than a week after the Cronkite broadcast, Nixon decisively won his reelection campaign. But those of us following the story felt it. Washington people, people who followed national stories—a lot of them who had not decided that we were right changed their minds because of Walter. They said, "Cronkite wouldn't hitch his wagon to any fly-by-night outfit." It was terribly important.

He conveyed seriousness through that face. That face and his behavior. He had no flaws. He was not young and hustling; he was not overly aggressive. He was such a nice person on top of everything else. Generally you get in these fights, and you can't pick your allies. But if you had to pick an ally, then Cronkite was a perfect person. Everyone respected him. He was so well known in a way that journalists aren't known now. Cronkite was a national figure when the rest of us were struggling for national notoriety.