A Wry Memoir from Uncle Walter Cronkite Has Kept His Fame in Perspective

Article excerpt

A REPORTER'S LIFE

A memoir by Walter Cronkite

384 pages, Knopf, $26.95 ***** THE MEMOIRS of any journalist in book form ought to be cause for skepticism. The journalists who write them often present themselves as insiders who have been at great events and known famous people. Yet those who believe themselves to be insiders are frequently deluded: Journalists are almost always on the outside trying to look in. They do not really know who said what to whom at crucial moments in closed meetings, who really acted valorously on wartime battlefields, who really is being sincere when expressing regrets about past decisions that affected humanity. Journalists, in short, are usually distant observers, not close-up participants. To some extent, Walter Cronkite fits that description, and his memoir, as he turns 80 years old, ought to be read accordingly. But then, Cronkite has the right to claim insider status in the later part of his career. Partly through skill, partly due to circumstances beyond his control, he became perhaps the most famous journalist of all time, the best-known television network anchor, and arguably the most trusted person ever to transmit news to mass audiences. The road to fame started in St. Joseph, Mo., where Cronkite was born in 1916. The first chapter of Cronkite's memoir contains some heartwarming scenes of his early years in St. Joseph around the time of World War I. During that war, Cronkite's father, a dentist, might or might not have served with future U.S. President Harry Truman, another Missourian. From his retrospective perch, Cronkite comments wryly on that relationship: "To his credit, Dad, as far as I know, never claimed a close battlefield relationship with the thirty-third president of the United States, although, with a modesty probably meant to be becoming, he acknowledged having known the chap. Years later Truman, with probably more kindliness than honesty, acknowledged that he had known Dad. "No suggestion should be made that, with these little manifestations of highly quixotic coincidence, history, so early in life, was brushing my cheek. But, on the other hand, who is to say that they didn't leave some sort of postpartum impression that inspired a future passion for current events, history in the making, the stuff of journalism?" That wry, sometimes downright ironic, occasionally self-deprecating tone infuses this memoir, making it more memorable than most of its genre. Cronkite seems to have kept his fame and influence in perspective. But back to Missouri . . . While Cronkite was in his early years of schooling, his family moved to Kansas City, where young Walter, an only child, hawked the Kansas City Star on street corners to earn spending money, where he hung out at his maternal grandfather's drug store. It was a pleasant life, and sometimes exciting as he experienced the spirited parties his parents hosted in their comfortable home. The idyllic childhood shattered when Cronkite's parents moved to Houston as Walter turned 10 years old. …