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Cronkite's death spurs flood of words, memories

As I said in my obituary of Walter Cronkite, in person, he could come off as formal, stiff and even somewhat self-important. But those who worked with and knew him said he had a sense of humor and uncommon kindness.

I saw a bit of both sides of the man over the years in my encounters with him. Let me briefly recount one of those memories before sharing some assessments of Cronkite that didn't make it into my obituary of the legendary newscaster. They come from a Who's Who of television news.

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In 1996, he and I sat down at CBS headquarters to talk about a book he was just about to publish, A Reporter's Life. I had been kept waiting a long time while ABC anchorman Charles Gibson posed for publicity pictures and chatted with Cronkite following their interview.

Cronkite, meanwhile, who was already 80 years old at the time, had been running late all day, hadn't eaten any lunch and was not in the best of moods, according to an assistant.

As we sat down, the interview had trouble written all over it.

Once we were settled into our places, I pulled a microcassette tape recorder out of my bag, snapped it on, and placed it in front of Cronkite.

"It won't bother you, will it?" I said, with an edge even I heard as the words came out of mouth, though I really didn't intend it to be there.

Cronkite said nothing at first. He just stared at the 3 by 5 inch, $33 Realistic Radio Shack recorder on the table between us. Then, he stared at it some more and started to chuckle.

"No, I don't think it will bother me -- not exactly the 5,000-pound pencil, is it?" he said, using a term from the TV news business for the equipment it takes to record a TV interview like the one he had just finished with Gibson. "I think it will be okay."

He chuckled the Uncle Walter chuckle as he said it, and the skies parted. And we were off and running on a terrific interview. Not surprisingly, we talked quite a bit about the differences -- and the common ground -- of TV and print journalism. I learned a lot from him that day -- and it was his sense of humor, irony and graciousness that helped make it possible.

As I said at the time, yes, he embraced the 5,000-pound pencil and the celebrity that comes with it to become the quintessential anchorman, the archetype against which all the others have been measured. But he also stayed in touch with the fact-based values and get-it-right goals of the print reporter working with a spiral notebook or simple tape recorder.

Two years later, I had another encounter with Cronkite as I tried to get a quote from him on then-CBS anchorman Dan Rather for a story my wife, Christina Stoehr, and I were writring for the American Journalism Review.

The editor of AJR thought we needed to get Cronkite's voice in the piece, but Cronkite had very complicated feelings about his successor and wasn't co-operating at all with our efforts to talk to him.

I got the quotes, but right now, I'm feeling like it's been a long, long day, and maybe I should sleep on this memory before I commit it to print even in the more informal space of a blog. Maybe tomorrow...

For now, let me leave you with some of the quotes from Cronkite's colleagues that are not in my obituary of him, but have something important to say about who he was and what he came to represent in American life. I am sure of this as I sit here at the computer at 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning: The outpouring of respect and affection from the people quoted here is a tremendous testament to what a giant Cronkite was in the history of TV News.

Sean McManus, President, CBS News and Sports: "It is impossible to imagine CBS News, journalism or indeed America without Walter Cronkite. More than just the best and most trusted anchor in history, he guided America through our crises, tragedies and also our victories and greatest moments. No matter what the news event was, Walter was always the consummate professional with an un-paralleled sense of compassion, integrity, humanity, warmth, and occasionally even humor. There will never be another figure in American history who will hold the position Walter held in our minds, our hearts and on the television. We were blessed to have this man in our lives and words cannot describe how much he will be missed by those of us at CBS News and by all of America."

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Katie Couric, anchor and managing editor, CBS EVENING NEWS WITH KATIE COURIC
correspondent, 60 MINUTES: ""When I think of Walter Cronkite, I think of his high journalism standards, integrity – but most of all his humanity.  I think he was so trusted because he exhibited a sense of purpose and compassion, night after night.  He was the personification of excellence."

Don Hewitt, executive producer, CBS News, creator of 60 MINUTES and Cronkite's first executive producer on the CBS EVENING NEWS: "How many news organizations get the chance to bask in the sunshine of a half-century of Edward R. Murrow followed by a half century of Walter Cronkite?"

Andy Rooney, 60 MINUTES commentator: "I've been proud over the years to see Walter become, not just one of the best known people on television but one of the best known people in the whole world of people. He was proud of me, too and there's no better feeling in life than that. I wouldn't trade Walter Cronkite liking me for just about anything I've ever had."

Mike Wallace, 60 MINUTES correspondent emeritus:  "We were proud to work with him – for him – we loved him."

Morley Safer, 60 MINUTES correspondent: "Walter was truly the father of television news. The trust that viewers placed in him was based on the recognition of his fairness, honesty and strict objectivity. …and of course his long experience as a shoe-leather reporter covering everything from local politics to World War II and its aftermath in the Soviet Union. He was a giant of journalism and privately one of the funniest, happiest men I've ever known."

Charles Osgood, anchor SUNDAY MORNING, CBS RADIO "The Osgood File":"There was a reason why Walter was called the most trusted man in America. Nothing was more important to him than getting the story right and telling it fairly, and he expected the same of us.  I've learned a lot from wonderful colleagues here at CBS News, but from him most of all."

Jeff Fager, executive producer, 60 MINUTES: "Walter Cronkite reached heights that will be almost impossible to match.  It's unimaginable when you consider his achievements - a journalist who was the most trusted man in America.  He made us proud of who we were and what we did, and always with an extraordinary dignity and humility."

Linda Mason, Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects: "I was the first woman producer on the CBS EVENING NEWS, and Walter could not have been more welcoming and more professional. I remember his great enthusiasm for almost every story he touched—from politics to space and even the good fire. Everything was new. When I had the opportunity to executive-produce a two-hour special on Cronkite as his career was winding down, I was again struck by how much he retained the common touch and how he regarded his career with wonder.  I told him he was the Forrest Gump of the 20th century and he laughed."

Rick Kaplan, executive producer, CBS EVENING NEWS: "Radio and television newsrooms all over America are filled with reporters and producers, writers and editors, who got into journalism for one reason: Walter Cronkite. He was a role model for so many of us. I grew up watching Walter on television, and it was the thrill of my life to finally meet him, and a privilege to spend six years producing pieces for him for the CBS EVENING NEWS.  He set standards that we in broadcast journalism still strive to meet today. Walter Cronkite was, quite simply, the best. His legacy and his spirit will always be part of CBS News and wherever good journalism is practiced."

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Susan Zirinsky, executive producer 48 HOURS: "As a Washington researcher under Cronkite during Watergate, as a Washington producer for Cronkite, he pushed us all to never give up and always seek the truth. His energy and his passion were infectious. Cronkite made us all better at our jobs—he was the spine of CBS News and we were proud to be on his team."

Leslie Moonves, President and Chief Executive Officer, CBS Corporation: "It is with enormous sadness that we mark the death of Walter Cronkite. His passing is, of course, a major loss for journalism. He was a great broadcaster and a gentleman whose experience, honesty, professionalism and style defined the role of anchor and commentator. For almost two exciting and turbulent decades during the 1960s and 1970s he helped inform our nation, and bring us together. In so doing, he transcended his field to become the most trusted man in America. The legacy he left us all will endure. It was one of the great honors of my career to have had the opportunity to know him."

ABC News President David Westin: "Walter Cronkite set an example for all broadcast journalism by simply doing his best to tell us the truth about things that matter, with courage and without partisanship. We will miss him, but will seek to keep his spirit alive by following his example."

ABC News Anchor Charles Gibson: "Walter Cronkite was and always will be the gold standard. His objectivity, his even-handedness, his news judgment are all great examples. He, as much as anyone, is responsible for developing network television news. He set the standard. He told it 'the way it is' and all of us who are privileged to work in this business owe him an enormous debt of gratitude."

ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer: "He was the defining anchor of America's story – reminding us of what we can be at our best.He had depth, foreign reporting experience, endless excitement about the news, and an irresistible irreverence.A call, a note, a compliment from Walter was pretty much the Nobel Prize for a young reporter. I am so lucky to know what it was to be part of the Cronkite team."

ABC News Anchor Barbara Walters: "There never was and there never will be another Walter Cronkite. We trusted him and that trust was well founded. He was also a jolly and supportive friend. He will be missed by each of us individually who knew him and by the whole country who loved him."

Jon Klein, president, CNN/U.S.: "Walter Cronkite not only anchored a newscast, he anchored the nation during perilous times that included the assassination of a president and the resignation of another as well as a divisive war and the culture clash that followed. To this day, more than a quarter century since he vacated the anchor chair, every television journalist aspires to be what Walter was - steady, certain, reassuring, reliable, authoritative but accessible. He was America's Uncle Walter, and for three decades he was the most trusted name in news."

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