The Voice of God on TV: Walter Cronkite's 1960s

The CBS newsman Walter Cronkite helped guide coverage of the 1970 solar eclipse.

If you turned the TV dial to CBS in 1965, this is what you'd likely see: Walter Cronkite.

From the cramped CBS newsroom in New York, the pipe-puffing Cronkite liked feeling in control of the news organization, typing copy, scribbling notes, working the phones, cracking jokes through a haze of afternoon smoke. Moments before airtime, Cronkite would take a quick glance in a handheld mirror, making sure his hair was slicked back properly. While getting a dab of powder on his face, he slipped on his suit jacket with just ten seconds left on the clock. A lockdown now occurred. Not a peep. Cronkite would move his chair an inch, sit up straight, and glance down at his notes. At first gander, he looked like a well-intentioned Midwestern newspaper editor preparing to inform out-of-town visitors about that day's happenings. The camera zeroed in on him.

"Good evening," Cronkite said, and the broadcast began.

Cronkite first saw how surreal the Vietnam War was when, in the summer of 1965, he boarded a Vietnamese airliner in Hong Kong. The stewardess was a "beauty" with the smile of an angel. She brought Cronkite an imported beer and a copy of Saigon's English-language rag, the Daily News. Cronkite was in heaven. The interior of the plane was white and clean. He had a pipe packed for a relaxing smoke. Wasn't it wonderful to forget the Congo, Castro, and de Gaulle for a while? But then he read the stark headline: "Air Vietnam Stewardess Held in Airplane Bombing." An uneasiness swept over him. He wondered, "Was my stewardess's smile the smile of the cobra?" At that minute, no longer relaxed, Cronkite learned the fundamental truth about Vietnam: "One could not depend on things being what they seemed to be."

Cronkite's telecast became a powerful agent in conveying to the world the horrors of the Jim Crow South. The net effect of CBS News—both radio and TV—on the freedom struggle proved immeasurable. Dr. Martin Luther King had a genius for setting up foils such as the brutal Sheriff James G. Clark Jr. of Dallas County, Ala., who used cattle prods, bullwhips, and clubs on protesters. Ditto for Bull Connor, commissioner of public safety in Birmingham. The CBS cameras beamed the barbarity right into tens of millions of living rooms. "To the movement," Julian Bond recalled, "Cronkite was the voice of God on TV."

It was clear by 1966 that Cronkite didn't want to cover space as much as he wanted to be a NASA astronaut. He would describe tasting the pre-packed nutrition bars the Gemini astronauts ate and personally tested walking in zero gravity. Cronkite broadcasting live from Cape Kennedy was often exhilarating. "My God, our building's shaking here," Cronkite told viewers on one liftoff, as ceiling tiles came tumbling down. "Our building's shaking! The roar is terrific! The building's shaking! This big glass window is shaking. We're holding it with our hands! Look at that rocket go! Into the clouds at 3,000 feet! The roar is terrific! Look at it going! You can see it. Part of our roof has come in here."

Even as the CBS News booth was crumbling from the sonic Saturn V vibrations, Cronkite, soon to be dubbed the Most Trusted Man in America, was flying high. With his first color broadcast on Aug. 19, 1965, and after switching to color permanently on Jan. 31, 1966, Cronkite somehow began to seem a contemporary telecaster, not a stodgy voice from the bygone days of Edward R. Murrow. "No one has a larger stake in going into color than I have," he told a media critic. "I'm much slenderer in tints than in black and white."

By 1967, he was America's top-ranked TV anchorman. And his close became a supportive slogan for the masses, "And That's the Way It Is."

Douglas Brinkley is the author of "Cronkite," to be published this May by HarperCollins.