CRONKITE, by Douglas Brinkley. Harper, 819 pp. $34.99.
In the 1950s, Walter Cronkite hosted a TV show called "You Are There." It recreated historic events and reported them as news. The half-hour was informed, wide-ranging, clear, accessible.
This richly detailed and impeccably researched biography brings you into a vivid life, off screen and on, humanizing the "most trusted man in America," with whom viewers shared so many evenings.
Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University, wrote it with the cooperation of the Cronkite family. But "Cronkite" isn't a tribute. It's a thorough, evenhanded and illuminating work that goes beyond image and myth about "the broadcast legend" for a full, frank and fascinating portrait.
And, through its personal narrative, "Cronkite" is a powerful reminder about what has happened to television news. Not that earlier decades were pure -- Brinkley evocatively chronicles how they weren't.
But Brinkley's calm, reasoned perspective, which at times mirrors Cronkite's own humane, civil on-air style, seems absolutely refreshing now, when every burp is deemed "breaking news," rants pass for analyses and the term "balanced" comes with a wink.
You remember Cronkite the anchorman in shirt sleeves, removing his black, horn-rimmed glasses, briefly looking into the camera, putting the glasses back, and "with pained authority" telling the nation that President John F. Kennedy was dead. Or years later, reporting on Apollo 11, simply reacting with the country to men on the moon with a near-speechless, "Oh, boy!"
Brinkley also presents another, less appealing side of Cronkite. He was intensely, even recklessly competitive and would big-foot others' stories. Cronkite was very critical of colleagues at CBS, especially harsh on potential rivals and successors. He could be as arrogant as any of them, and just as self-righteous.
In a damning episode, Cronkite's ambition led him to orchestrate the bugging of a credentials committee meeting at the 1952 Republican convention, an action approved by his boss.
Cronkite narrated a 1962 anti-Communist propaganda film for the Defense Department. He encouraged then-Sen. Robert Kennedy to challenge President Lyndon Johnson in 1968; Kennedy suggested that Cronkite run for the U.S. Senate. He could be accused of flag-waving and cheerleading as easily as he could be denounced for liberal leanings.
Brinkley also writes that Cronkite "cut a deal with Pan Am airlines to fly the entire family to a series of international vacation spots."
These items may disillusion some Cronkite fans. They jump from Brinkley's pages because Cronkite is so revered. But they're part of the all-encompassing approach that defines and elevates Brinkley's work.
You'll meet Cronkite, the son and grandson of dentists in Missouri and the oldest of six children, as a paperboy for the Kansas City Star and a seller of subscriptions to The Saturday Evening Post. At 10, he'd move to Texas, where his father joined the faculty of what's now Houston's University of Texas Health Center.
Young Cronkite read the World Book Encyclopedia. He built a telegraph system to link the houses of friends. The churchgoing Boy Scout also learned he had an alcoholic father, and about divorce. His single mother taught him tolerance in a Jim Crow state.
In high school, he listened to live radio. After junior year, he became "an exalted copy boy" at The Houston Post. Cronkite dropped out of the University of Texas, became a wire-service reporter, worked at The Houston Press and at 19 joined KCMO radio in Kansas City.
About that time, CBS News brought in a 29-year-old with a resonant voice to become "director of talks," arranging 15-minute broadcasts. Eventually, Cronkite would meet Edward R. Murrow, who offered twice to hire him. He took it for good the second time.
Cronkite's experience in print, radio and television ranged from sports recreations to coverage of World War II, NASA, Watergate, Three Mile Island; prodding the Sadat-Begin peace talks; and going to Vietnam, memorably commenting that stalemate was likely.
Cronkite was a steadying, reassuring voice. After leaving the anchor chair in 1981, he was "determined to be relevant." It was a hard transition. He stayed active in journalism, social circles and more. The "world's oldest reporter" died on July 17, 2009. He was 92.
Among his peers on television, David Brinkley, no relation to the author, displayed knowing wit; Eric Sevareid, sharp intellect; Howard K. Smith, breadth and principle. Cronkite had some of each. But he had one more thing.
Walter Cronkite had America. He was there.