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Cronkite one of a kind

By Donald Kaul

Walter Cronkite died last week. Good.

At the end he was ill, enfeebled and suffering from dementia. He was far too fine a man for that.

He was 92, after all, and he'd had a hell of a run. By accident of birth and circumstance and talent, he was front-row center for virtually every major event of the second half of the 20th Century. For much of that time he was our eyes and ears at those events.

His career was nothing short of incredible, unimaginable in these days of tin-cup journalism.

As a young wire-service reporter he was one of the first journalists accredited to cover World War II. He was with the Allied troops during the North Africa campaign, then covered the Normandy invasion and, later, the Battle of the Bulge.

He covered the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, then opened the first Moscow bureau for United Press at the birth of the Cold War.

In 1950 he went to CBS to begin a legendary broadcasting career.

He "anchored" CBS coverage of the 1952 Democratic and Republican national political conventions, the first time anyone had anchored anything, so far as we know. He was a tremendous success and on his way to television stardom.

In the early '60s, he replaced Edward R. Murrow, himself a legendary figure, as the network's chief correspondent and took over the editor's chair of the evening news. Almost immediately the network expanded to a half-hour format from its previous 15-minute show, another first.

His signature moments, those that gave punctuation marks to the history of those times, followed.

The most famous, certainly, was his reporting of the death of President John F. Kennedy.

Much is made of the fact that Cronkite was a good reporter---and he was---but most of the good television anchors have been good reporters. They could all cover a fire.

What Cronkite was also was a fine actor with a wonderful sense of timing. I remember watching him on that awful day when we knew the president had been gravely wounded but didn't know how gravely.

Cronkite was on camera reading aloud from fragmentary reports as they came in, when they handed him a yet another piece of paper.

He read it to himself, then paused and removed his glasses, his heavy, darkly framed glasses. And our hearts sank. We knew at that moment that Kennedy was dead. The announcement was mere confirmation. It was a remarkable performance; no one who saw it that day will forget it.

Then there were the other moments: his almost childish "Oh boy" when Neal Armstrong stepped on the moon, his solemn report on Vietnam in 1968, when he stepped out of his reporter's role to declare the war "a stalemate" and counsel a negotiated settlement. It marked the beginning of the end for "Johnson's War" and his presidency.

In 1972, at a time when networks had a two-minute limit on news items, he ran a 14-minute report on Watergate, thereby bringing that scandal to the full attention of the American public for the first time.

He retired in 1981, well before the precipitous decline of the news business, which was probably just as well. He'd seen and been part of the best of it.

Actually, one of my favorite images of Cronkite dates back to the early days of television, 1953, when he served as narrator and on-camera reporter for the fictional documentary series, "You Are There." The show recreated historic events---the Hindenburg disaster, the Battle of the Alamo, Waterloo---and covered them as though they were breaking news.

In 1995, 14 years after his retirement, a "TV Guide" poll ranked him No. 1 in seven of eight categories for measuring television anchors.

He expressed mock astonishment that Maria Shriver had beaten him in the eighth---attractiveness.

We shall not look upon his like again.

Don Kaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-losing Washington correspondent who, by his own account, is right more than he's wrong.