Jeff Gralnick: Remembering Walter

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeff Gralnick is a 50-year veteran of broadcast news who was fortunate enough to work for and with Walter Cronkite from 1961 to 1970. He is currently acting as Special Consultant on Global Business Development for NBC News.]

The "memories of Walter" rush is on and rightfully so.

No doubt many with bolder face names than mine are dictating or at keyboards knocking out their "I remember when" pieces as we all try to both honor the memory and pin down the fact that "we were there with The Man when" which is a natural instinct. I was lucky enough to be one of those who was in the dozen or so years when my starter career at CBS News in the early '60s and his exploding one connected. I worked directly with him in the early days of broadcast news and his ascendancy to a rightful and earned place as "most trusted man."

My stories?

All brief, so bear with, and culled to get at what I think is essential not to lose now: That no matter how big he became there was an essential decency and humanity along with his drive to know and understand each story that he never lost. All that contributed to that "most trusted" thing and it begins for me with his ability to say and say in public "I was wrong."

It's 1965, and it pre-launch for one of the Gemini manned space missions. As Walter's "anchor assistant" which was a grab bag job title of researcher and producer and hand holder and security blanket, I helped prepare him for the story he was about to broadcast. After taking Walter step-by-step through a piece of orbital mechanics arcana that was key to the mission, Walter told me flatly: "Damnit you're wrong" and I told him equally flatly that he didn't know what he was talking about.

There I was at barely 25 nose-to-nose with WAL-ter CRON-kite, going at it and losing on a point that had to be won if was to be right on air but wasn't winning and to boot was being chewed out hard and in public by The Guy.

We went on the air, broadcast the launch and the start of the mission and at some point it became clear to me that Walter had finally gotten it. No light bulb is visible in the playback tape but clearly it had gone on. And when we got off the air, Walter stood up and told a crowded broadcast trailer studio: "I was wrong. This young man was 100% right and I should have listened." A public apology from Walter; an admission that he was wrong? Who'da thunk? Only those who didn't really know him I discovered that day.

Walter and I in Phu Bai in 1968, Credit: CBS News cameraman Jimmy Wilson

Flash forward three years and it is Viet Nam where I am with Walter in February of 1968 where I was having my Hemingway-war correspondent moment and trying to figure out which side of the camera I belonged on. I was asked to step away briefly from that to join the production team put together for the special half hour he was going to do on the war and the TET offensive.

And this little story is all about Walter's need to "experience it as it was" in order to know the story he was covering.

We were in Hue after a ride in on open truck full of replacements through very much contested territory during which one young marine looked up, saw Walter in flak jacket and helmet and said as only a Marine could, "Fuck, if Cronkite is here, this must be big." When it came time to bed down, the question was where? I said I was taking the film crew to the safest place I knew which was the stone basement of Hue University. Be a helluva rocket to get us there was clear but it was going to mean a stone floor for a bed and Meals Ready to Eat coffee heated in canteen cups for breakfast. Our military escorts (Walter WAS very well escorted) offered up a tent with cots and blankets in a relatively secure somewhat rear area that came with a hot breakfast.

Walter had none of it. "You guys," he said to his more senior producers, "can go, but I'm going with those guys" meaning us and he did. Slept on the floor. Flinched at the sound of incoming and outgoing with the rest of us. Hated the coffee but thanked us for it and he experienced the war at the Grunt's level and it made his reporting what it was as did the only ride possible out of Hue. It was on a Marine helicopter the crew and I helped load with dead Marines. He wanted to experience it and wasn't afraid to do what it took.

Flash forward again but this time only five months.

I'm back from my six months having agreed to return in time to pick up as Walter's anchor assistant trading foxholes in Viet Nam for a pit under the anchor desk where I became the unseen body attached to that hand passing 5x7 file cards up to Walter's left hand. I cannot remember which night is was that they showed the memorial film for Bobby and Martin whose assassinations I had essentially missed intellectually and emotionally while covering the war. They died. Their deaths interrupted what we were doing, were worked into the fabric of our coverage and then we moved on. Neither had hit me.

As that film spooled out for the delegates I was destroyed. King whom I had covered and gotten to know in the South was now actually dead for me and so was Kennedy which brought back the range of emotion I felt when covering his brother's death five years before.

I was unable to function and worried about what would Walter "do" as I sat up against the desk and wept. And what he did was reach down; pat me on the shoulder; and say "take the time you need. When you're ready come back to me." It was a moment of empathy and humanity I have never forgotten and it was part of the essential man.

America may not have known it, but it saw that essential man twice that I am aware of while he was on the air and both times he took his glasses off.

The first was when he had to report that President Kennedy was dead. Glasses came off. He wiped the corner of his eye then took a breath and moved on. He felt the moment and let it be known as best he could while controlling it so he could move the story on. And the second was the night 40 years ago when man landed on the moon. When it was clear Armstrong and Aldrin were safely down at Tranquility Base the glasses came off and the "Holy Cow" Walter uttered softly was the essential man out there for the entire world to see. Feeling the moment and letting those on the other side of the glass know that he felt the relief and emotion and the pride that they did.

That was Walter. He was every bit a "what you saw was what you got" kind of guy and it is that made him unique and earned him that "most trusted" thing which to his credit he never really bought.

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