Monday, July 20, 2009

"Man on the Moon!" - Cronkite and Apollo 11

Forty years ago today, everyone on the planet who had access to a television was glued to it, watching grainy images of what is arguably the most significant milestone in the history of human civilization. President Kennedy's call for putting man on the moon had been fulfilled. As the world watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bound about the surface of the Moon, most Americans heard this momentous event summed up by a voiceover of four simple words from the CBS News anchorman:

"Man on the Moon!"

Those words were uttered by Walter Cronkite. The camera cut away to Cronkite as his professional demeanor slipped away in a tidal wave of joy and pride. He removed his glasses, and a huge grin swept across his face. For a moment, he was giddy and speechless. His viewers forgave him for that, for they were right there with him, just as they forgave him six years earlier for shedding tears while announcing the death of JFK.

After all, he was "Uncle Walter," a man whom we invited into our homes every evening to find out what was happening in the world. In an age before 24 hours cable news channels and the Internet, he was America's town crier. Not just a talking head who read the news, he was an actual journalist. On D-Day, he landed behind enemy lines in a glider with Allied Troops, and flew on a bombing mission over Germany. He covered the Nuremberg Trials, the Cold War, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Watergate scandal, and the Iran Hostage Crisis. And his word was trusted.

His iconic sign-off, "That's the way it is," was a nightly pledge to his viewers that he would faithfully and objectively report the facts to the best of his ability. The only time that he allowed himself to deviate from this objectivity was a rare on-the-air editorial from 1968. Following the Tet Offensive, Cronkite journeyed to Vietnam to assess the state of the conflict. His conclusion was that the war was unwinnable, prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson to proclaim, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Weeks later, LBJ announced that he would not run for reelection. Such was the gravitas of Walter Cronkite.

So it was that when America watched the televised coverage of Apollo 11, most chose to watch Cronkite's coverage. Since the earliest days of the Space Program, he had eagerly covered it, with all the wonder and curiosity of a child. He loved the Space Program, and made no effort to hide it (while still somehow maintaining a sense of journalistic objectivity). It is no small wonder that watching the glory that was Apollo 11 choked him up for a while, right along with his viewers. And it is all the more tragic that he is no longer with us to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

"We came in peace, for all Mankind." Uncle Walter said so.

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