Walter Cronkite was seething on the night of Aug, 18, 1969.
A vast music festival had just ended in upstate New York, and he seemed to be unaware that everyone was calling it "Woodstock." No matter: He would just dismissively refer to it as "a rock music festival in White Lake, New York" on the "CBS Evening News."
This White Lake festival had been attended by hundreds of thousands of young people, no doubt many of them "hippies." The most trusted man in America didn't like hippies. They offended him, recalling in a 1997 CBS special, "During that period I made the declarative statement, 'I don't care for their hair; I don't care for their looks; I don't care for their clothes; I don't care for their behavior. I don't care for anything about them.'"
Cronkite masked well his repugnance on the air, his rivals less so. The festival is over, said NBC News anchor Chet Huntley, then added — glowering through thick horn-rimmed glasses — "but the aftertaste lingers on." Over at ABC, the commentator Howard K. Smith arrived at one hysterical conclusion: "Woodstock is a picture of all our future!" This post-apocalyptic vision of an overcrowded America "means then [that] over-population, so long predicted, has stolen upon us, and it gets worse week by week."
For Cronkite, the "White Lake" mosh pit was personal, as he related on that 1997 broadcast, entitled "Cronkite Remembers." Days before, his teen daughter, Kathy, had called from college "and she said, 'We've been invited to a concert and I need $ 5 to go.' Mother [his wife, Betsy Cronkite] and I just jumped to a conclusion that this was probably with the New York Philharmonic or some such concert of the type."
Sure she could have five dollars. That Friday evening, after the broadcast, the Cronkites were driving up to their country house and turned on their radio to learn that a concert was underway, and attendees were "in the mud and naked," as Betsy later recalled.
"And we thought," said Cronkite, "'Isn't that a terrible thing? Oh, that's just awful, for those kids to — awful — Woodstock, concert..."
He then paused, and wondered to Betsy: "'Could that be where Kathy is?'"
Cronkite wanted a commentary on Woodstock for that Monday's edition of "Evening News" and perhaps secretly hoped that CBS' distinguished essayist Eric Sevareid would turn out a screed that would finish off the hirsute rabble with a few well-tuned phrases and a sharp rhetorical thrust or two. Sevareid was not available, so instead, the call went out to John Laurence.
By August 1969, Laurence was back stateside after two reporting tours in Vietnam, where he had covered the battles of Dak To, Hue, Khe Sahn, the siege of Con Thien and the Tet Offensive. Cronkite, understandably, had high regard for his young reporter who told him about the futility of the war and who helped inform Cronkite's Feb. 28, 1968, special broadcast declaring the U.S. "mired in a stalemate."
Laurence's Woodstock commentary may or may not have surprised Cronkite. It hardly reflected his own views. Laurence looked over the vast crowds and saw peace and a common humanity. Nothing about this concert offended him, and — quite the contrary — gave him hope for the future, and that "people of all ages are capable of compassion."
After a long and distinguished career, Laurence, 79, is now living in England. In an email, he explained that by the time he and his crew got to Woodstock on Friday morning, "It was already getting muddy. The four of us spent the night in the car trying to sleep. It rained much of the time. What I really wanted to do was smoke a joint, sit down somewhere in the audience and listen to the music, but that was impossible with the straight-laced camera crew."
He and the crew flew back to the city Saturday "in a small, bubble-top helicopter [and] In order to save time to get us back to West 57th Street to make the 6:30 p.m..news broadcast, the pilot flew underneath the George Washington Bridge. His words to us as we approached the bridge were, 'OK, you didn't see this, right?'"
"To witness the level of kindness and consideration shown by just about everybody at the Festival (except my disgruntled older camera crew) was a revelation. Hundreds of thousands of good-natured American young people came together to listen to music and behave like peace and love were more than words on a poster.
"Never mind the negative coverage of the bad acid, the accidents, nudity, food shortages and the rain and mud. Woodstock was truly about harmony — on and off the stage."
Laurence called it "one of the most memorable assignments of the 12 years I worked at CBS News."