The death of Walter Cronkite, typical of the deaths of celebrities, returns us to ourselves — the memory of what we were doing, when, and with whom. Celebrity death is a personal history lesson.
Like millions of Americans my age, I grew up watching three TV channels, and Cronkite anchored one of them. Not that I disagree with the consensus about Cronkite, that he was America’s go-to-guy, what one reporter called our “security blanket”. But with the possible exception of the moon landing, I wasn’t watching Cronkite’s coverage — that wonderfully authoritative tonality and cadence. I seemed to have preferred not so much the voice-of-God I associated with Cronkite, but the graceful, witty, ironic syncopated delivery of David Brinkley.
True, Brinkley was more or less second banana to the Cronkitish Chet Huntley — serious, almost scowling with his own gravelly delivery. But Brinkley was worth the wait. He was dry, comic relief — a zillion times more subtle, of course, than the antics of the “fake new” anchors we love, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. No comparison, really, except that a good many young Americans put about as much trust in Stewart as my generation did in Cronkite, Huntley, Harry Reasoner, and perhaps before them, John Cameron Swayzee, with a delivery so stiff and straight on that he made Cronkite look almost like a standup comic.
It’s the postmodern” turn,” isn’t it — the straight-ahead, no-nonsense objectivity of the post-World War II era gradually subverted by the events of the last half of the twentieth century, including the shocking revelations of racial, gender and ethnic inequality;the landmark Brown v. Board of Education overturning the Supremes acceptance of “separate but equal” in Plesse v. Ferguson (l896); the excesses of McCarthy’s super-patriotic bullying melodramas; the up-yours attitudes of the hippies and radicals of the “Hair” generation; the brutal, strange and sometimes visible brutality of America’s take-down in the Viet Nam war; the replacement of the democratic asymmetric heroism of “little Israel” fighting off those millions of mean Arabs by the contrasting asymmetry of a bullying Goliath Israel trashing the villages of the stone-throwing Palestinian Davids.
Cronkite’s CBS tenure — l962-1981 — took me from my senior year in high school and freshman year in college to my mid-thirties. In my college dorm, as a freshman, none of us had TV’s. In the fall of my frosh year, I didn’t watch the Cuban missile crisis on TV, I heard it on the radio — it was pure sound and word of mouth, like the whiny new yawp of Bob Dylan. Nor did I watch Cronkite wipe a tear from his eye when he announced that JFK had died of his wounds. Sitting with dorm mates, I heard the announcement on the radio — not from Cronkite but from someone — anyone. And when the skinny little South Viet Namese soldier was executed with a gunshot to his temple, I saw the clip on TV, but I’m pretty sure it was on the Huntley-Brinkley news, not Cronkite and CBS.
I was born a year before the demographically official start of the Baby Boom generation. But being on the cusp, as I was, my sensibility has a lot more Seinfeld than Milton Berle, a lot more Bill Clinton than FDR, who was president when I was born. My boyhood was Mickey Mantle, not Joe Dimaggio. A turncoat Red Sox fan now, since I moved to Boston 25 years ago, my Sox I.D. has been Clemens (alas!), Pedro and Big Papi, not Teddy Baseball.
The smart, if priggish Jedediah Purdy, a Yalie prodigy, some years ago scolded my generation for being apparently unable to take anything or anyone seriously except themselves — a fault he blamed on Jerry Seinfeld. Fine. But Kramer and George and Elaine are pretty small game compared to the historical items I’ve cited, not to mention those big game beasts Levi-Strauss, R.D. Laing, Foucault, Lacan, DeBord and scores of other Euro Big Thinkers, along with Ginsberg, Kerouac, William Carlos Williams, John Cage, Bucky Fuller, Miles, Elvis, Madonna, Britney, Tarantino, Richard Pryor, Curt Cobain, Steve Jobs and the young Bill Gates. Subversives, all of them.
No, what Cronkite’s death does for me — to put it in the definitively narcissistic insensivity associated with my generation — is offer a way to crystallize and frame my personal history. It did that in a way that the death of Michael Jackson did not. People like me tend to care a lot more about Armstrong’s walk on the moon than MJ’s moon walk.
To the charge of Irony in the First Degree I plead nolo contendere. After all, I rushed off to the Pacific Palisades to interview that proto ironist, Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer my mother found in my room when I was in high school and promptly took it down the hall and dumped it in the incinerator. To hell in a handbasket is what the Jedediah Purdies of the world — the Bill McKibbens of the world — may well think about my generation, the generation that grew up and gradually grew out of and away from Walter Cronkite. From the literary obscenities of Henry Miller to the shite-eating flicks of John Waters — that’s the moral and ethical Bataan Death March of my generation’s trail of irony and malaise.
Perhaps that’s why my famous contemporaries Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns turn for their heroes not to our generation but to “the greatest generation,” that world of our fathers and mothers. Even Obama, who could be already scaling the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore with his outsized idealistic ambition and his make-you-weep speeches for the ages — even he does not position himself as another Dr. King or Abe Lincoln. Neither of them could hit a three-pointer from being the arc. Neither of them were cool. If you’re cool — and Obama’s the coolest guy in the room — you’ve got a very different sensibility than FDR or Harry Truman or President Ike or Humphrey Bogart.
Walter Cronkite came from the pre-ironic world of Gary Cooper, Lou Gehrig Red Barber and Mel Allen. I hear more than a trace of that world in NPR’s Scott Simon, and before him, Bob Edwards — suavely masculine, modest, precise and, yes, trustworthy voices. I’m not a Dodger fan, but there’s no doubt Vin Scully belongs. Not particularly handsome or homely men, they come across like the family doctor who once upon a time when I was a child made housecalls with his beat-up black bag full of god-knows-what syringes and biologics and tongue depressors.
We don’t seem to have those kinds of fellows any more. And so perhaps what brought the tears when I watched Obama’s acceptance speech as president-elect, was some inchoate sense that he wasn’t trying to be his heroes and mine — but rather that I could see that he felt what I felt for his heroes: reverence. Which is the prerequisite for heroism — the capacity for reverence.
Call me cynical, but I just don’t get that sense of reverence from so many of the impressively accomplished, celebrated idealists — activists across the whole critical, vengeful, justice-seeking spectrum of American life, environmentalists, feminists, super-patriots, talk show hosts right and left, anti-landmine peace prize winners.
I know: Who am I? But I’ve got this blog, and many of my heroes were writers like Henry Miller and J.D. Salinger and Dickens and Nicolai Gogol and Dostoevsky and Truman Capote and Saul Bellow because it seemed to me that they had the courage to tell the truth as they felt it. And what I feel, what I sense about the celebrated idealists I’ve failed to name isn’t so much reverence or humility but irritation or even rage and sanctimoniousness.
I could play the college professor — I happen to be one — and intellectualize my gutty feelings and perceptions. I could puff on my imaginary pipe (I once had a meerschaum for about six months) and attribute my ignoble skepticism to that well-known inability to render a clear-headed judgment of individuals in full flower — without the benefit of being able to look backward, without the calmer, truer, more accurate advantages of distance and time and history.
Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s just envy — one of those sinful branches jutting off the tree trunk of pride, that medieval Christian image of the cardinal sins. And, really, I have nothing against Samantha Power or the prophets of climatological apocalypse. It’s not unlikely that they’ll be lionized by my son’s generation as the kind of heroes they don’t make anymore.
In the end of these reflections, I am grateful not that the death of Walter Cronkite has meaning for me, but rather that his life has, his character has. He was a hero to many, if not particularly to me, admirable as he was. But what I’m grateful for is the example of heroes — an old-fashioned notion, I know, and very Emersonian, very NeoClassical. But that’s me, and I suspect millions, billions like me. We need heroes not so much as examples to live up to, but as mirrors to peer into so that we can discern what matters, what should matter, and discover through unblinking reverence what and who we really are.