GJR book review: ‘Cronkite’s War’ — and that’s the way it is

Cronkite’s War, His World War II Letters Home
Author: Walter Cronkite IV & Maurice Isserman
Publisher: National Geographic, 2013
Hardcover: $28, 473 pages

That famed broadcaster Walter Cronkite was regarded as “the most trusted man in America” probably says as much about the America of his time as it does about Cronkite.

Journalists today have fallen far from the grace he enjoyed. According to a recent Gallup poll, journalists rank just below bankers and a couple notches above lawyers in terms of perceived ethical standards. Recent disclosures of government’s ready access to today’s media technology giants will likely further erode the public’s trust of media independence and rectitude.

Yet the more you know about Cronkite – and “Cronkite’s War, His World War II Letters Home” by Walter Cronkite IV and Maurice Isserman adds significantly to that knowledge – the more you are inclined to see him as something special.

Cronkite is etched deep in American public consciousness. He was at the vanguard of television journalists who sat down for dinner each evening with the American family. He wore the face of a nation’s pain as he fiddled with his dark-framed glasses and fought back tears while announcing the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. On the flip side, there was common wisdom and reassurance with his nightly signature signoff: “And that’s the way it is.”

“Cronkite’s War” reveals a man of normal intellect, reasonable ambition and genuine goodness behind that highly visible public persona. Perhaps most striking these days is to discover a public persona that was not a façade.

Long before Cronkite commanded the television screen, he was writing newspaper copy and delivering news and sports on the radio. Born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo., he delivered newspapers in Houston, and he started (but never completed) college at the University of Texas at Austin. A series of local reporting jobs led him back to Kansas City, where he began courting Betsy Maxwell, also a journalist. Cronkite joined United Press news service, married Betsy and was accredited in New York as a war correspondent. Though not drafted because of his color blindness, Cronkite saw plenty of action following his posting to London, where he covered the Allied air war of 1943-45.

There were early signs of the competitive nature that ultimately would take Cronkite to the pinnacle of American broadcast journalism. Before his transfer to London, he was sent from New York on a ship convoy as part of the U.S. invasion of North Africa. On the return trip, eager to be the first to report on the invasion, Cronkite hopped aboard a floatplane launched from his ship to get stateside ahead of a competitor aboard another returning ship.

Cronkite’s forthright nature is evident in many of his letters home. He frequently complained about assignments, his workload, the living conditions in war-rationed London, and his loneliness – not only for his wife, but his beloved cocker spaniel Judy, too. While ambitious, Cronkite often bargained for more time off rather than higher pay as his success grew. Reflecting the same value system, his letters are full of yearnings for more family time.

Arriving in London in late 1942, Cronkite would begin 2½ years of separation from Betsy, who returned to Kansas City when Cronkite left New York. During that period, Cronkite wrote a steady stream of letters to Betsy, more than 100 of which are archived at the University of Texas at Austin and that form the grist for this book. To read the letters along a continuum is to get a sense of World War II that is less dramatic than a strictly historical account – but, in many ways, more revealing. Movies and books often reduce the war to its climactic turning points, its selective moments of high drama. The war is viewed here through the prism of an individual life, and a life not on the battlefield. It is a grinding affair, touching every aspect of life, something to be endured through perseverance and grit, all the while never knowing the ultimate outcome.

As one might expect, the letters’ recurring theme is the separation of Walter and his wife, only married three years before Cronkite’s move to London. As the months tick by, the separation is aggravated by never knowing when it would end. Cronkite endlessly floats fantasies about Betsy joining him in London, only to acknowledge the obvious reasons why it never fully makes sense.

By the end of 1944, Cronkite is full of self-recrimination, swimming in guilt that he has damaged his relationship with Betsy by writing too infrequently or adopting the wrong tone at times. His letters, in reality, are models of compassion and sensitivity. Nonetheless, the separation and difficulties of daily life, despite his steady career advancement, lead Cronkite to a rather dark assessment of the year past: “I guess it was a pretty successful one for me, but I didn’t have much fun living it.”

That low point aside, Cronkite personified resilience throughout these years. There were job perks, such as having cocktails with a soldier named Clark Gable. By and large, the letters reveal a chipper, upbeat and sociable Cronkite. His work gained growing attention as his bylined articles appeared in newspapers across the country. Edward R. Murrow featured him as a commentator on CBS Radio and offered him a job in Moscow, which Cronkite declined. Cronkite was part of a small group of journalists allowed to join a bombing run over Germany in 1943, a raid in which seven planes were shot down and Cronkite ended up firing a machine gun at enemy fighters.

Fellow war correspondent Andy Rooney once called Cronkite a “tough, competitive scrambler.”

The letters, stitched together with adequate connective tissue and historical context, offer a smooth and personal account that is consistent with Rooney’s assessment. Yet the Cronkite that emerges also is a kind of American “everyman,” his letters laced with corny Midwest humor, modesty and general optimism – the kind of traits that endeared him to a generation of television watchers, who through the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s turned regularly to “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” for information they could trust.

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