Oversized biography of the larger-than-life newscaster, still a byword for a TV anchor, at least among viewers of a certain age.
As Vanity Fair contributor Brinkley (History/Rice Univ.; The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 2009, etc.) writes, Walter Cronkite (1916–2009) was an indifferent student but a constant reader, attuned in childhood to what we would call the news, if at a different pace and intensity. It wasn’t an easy childhood: Cronkite’s father was an alcoholic, his parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up in the alien confines of coastal Texas, far from his prized Missouri. Nonetheless, he more than rose to the occasion, learning how to speak in a “radio voice” while still a teenager: “In true Lowell Thomas fashion, he interviewed anyone who would stand still and speak into whatever faux microphone prop he held.” He also apprenticed at the Houston Post, learning how to write a lean news story, and he had a forward-looking habit, sensing that wire stories were going to be replaced by man-on-the-ground coverage and that television, when it arrived, would surpass radio and other media. Brinkley is very good on Cronkite’s early distinction as a war correspondent in World War II under the influence of Edward R. Murrow. The author also gives Cronkite credit for being out ahead on certain stories, such as gay rights, the collapse of the Vietnam War and Watergate. He hints that Cronkite could be a touch prickly and sensitive—for one thing, about his lack of a college degree—but the author doesn’t press that far enough; one wants to know more about the enmity between Cronkite and Dan Rather, for example. For all the book’s weight, Brinkley, a dutiful and plodding writer, skimps here and there where he should not. The great correspondent and Cronkite-colleague Richard Threlkeld, for instance, gets but a single passing mention.
Still, the best portrait of Cronkite—that legendary journalist, certainly worthy of a big biography—that we have.