Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walter Cronkite: In Memoriam

We weren’t, God knows, a conventional family. For one thing, we were Southern, and that put us well outside the social mainstream. For another, we might or might not, on any given day, gather for supper without my father mysteriously absent from the table. He was frequently away, off on one of his periodic, unannounced jaunts, holed up drunk in a hotel room somewhere, with or without his woman du jour.

During those times, we ate in total silence, never sharing what any of us felt about the situation, the embarrassment of the calls from the court, saying he had missed a hearing, or calls from his law partner, asking if any of us knew how to contact him. Or, in my case, the relief—relief not to have him in the house, with his glowering, accusing presence that communicated to me without fail what a disappointment I was to him, the sissy son who couldn’t play football or baseball if his life depended on it, but who, strangely (and this was somehow shameful to my father), excelled at fishing and hunting, who could find his way around the woods even at night, when other boys remained lost and helpless on scouting trips designed to teach us self-sufficiency in the wild.

No, we weren’t conventional, so we didn’t always have all the rules that governed the table and television behavior of other families around us. Like one down the street where each person at table was required to say something, anything, in a daily ritual of “sharing” and “conversation-making” that sent me into a panic anytime I was invited to eat with these folks. Just as their habit of giving each person a bowl of popcorn for his- or herself, with a spoon to eat it, sent me into a spin when I spent the night there . . . . Needless to say, in that tightly controlled Calvinist family, with its hypochondriac, exercise-addicted father, television during meals was strictly forbidden.

We didn’t have any specific rule about television during supper, though my father might, depending on the severity of his hangover on a particular evening, jump up and turn off the t.v. set, announcing that civilized people don’t watch television while they eat. Our table rules—and they were legion—were more confined to niceties like posture, or how one held a fork, or whether one offered the last item on a platter to everyone else before taking it for oneself, or whether one chewed with a closed mouth and kept his extra arm in his lap, since strong and able people did not lean their elbows on the table.

In my memory, television began to insinuate itself into our suppers only gradually, during the Civil Rights and Vietnam era. With Walter Cronkite. Before that time, we didn’t watch t.v. as we ate—in part, because we didn’t even have a television set until I was well into grade school, and who would have wanted to try watching those queasy-making black and white splotches and lines when he ate, anyway?

With Walter Cronkite, news became imperative, even when it interrupted our mealtimes. Since the news hour coincided with our supper hour, we had no choice except to watch as we ate, and we did so voraciously—watch the news, that is, as we chewed the meatloaf or tuna casserole, enjoyed the pole beans with new potatoes and fresh-sliced tomatoes. We needed to know about the church bombings in Birmingham, the civil rights activists who had mysteriously disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi. We needed to know because these stories were part of our own story.

As white Southerners, we were inextricably involved in the massive social shift underway in our country, with its explosive tension points in places like our neighboring states of Alabama and Mississippi—Alabama, the state in which my mother’s father had been born, Mississippi, the state in which he had grown up. We could not escape these stories, because they were our stories.

And because they were our stories, we needed to discuss them as we listened to Mr. Cronkite around our supper table. What to do? How to handle the demand to change—seemingly overnight—everything we had been taught to believe about race, about social rank and order, about God’s arrangement of the world? Was it possible to call Beulah Mrs. Jameson without sounding like a fool when the insincere words fell out of our mouth?

And, increasingly, as I began to think with an adult mind about what was happening around me and dared to challenge my father during these dinner-table confabs: why were the roads in our neighborhood paved, when those in the black community next to us were unpaved? Why did we insist on believing that God had consigned Ham’s descendants to perpetual servitude, rather than believing that we ought to do to others what we hoped to have done to ourselves? What did the bible mean, when it was full of so many contradictory passages? Which ones demanded attention, and which belonged to bygone cultural eras?

Through it all, the reassuring voice of Walter Cronkite droned on in the background, assuring us that, no matter how horrific the events we saw that night on the t.v. screen—the bombed-out church, the Vietnamese village on fire with napalm—the world turned upside down still had some meaning. Some sanity prevailed somewhere, perhaps someplace like his native Missouri, our neighboring state to the north, which managed to remain down-home and quasi-Southern without the violent baggage of places like Mississippi and Alabama, and, we feared, our own state of Arkansas.

This was a voice we could trust. It was a version of our own voice, with its laid-back cadences and its air of gentle, unassuming authority. It was the kind of voice my mother characterized as gentlemanly—a trait she knew when she saw it, though it was becoming rarer and rarer in the world in which we lived. Walter Cronkite had it, as did Adlai Stevenson. Lyndon Baines Johnson didn’t, though Lady Bird was a real lady. Bill Fulbright counted for a gentleman. Orval Faubus decidedly did not.

So Walter Cronkite did more than inform me, during those crucial formative years of adolescence in a sleepy Southern state far from the social mainstream, when the news was always from outside, always essential, if I wanted to find connections between my own small, closed world and the bigger world around me. He also molded me as a person, as a truth-seeker. As a gentleman. He functioned as an important role model, one to which I was told to aspire.

He was what a gentleman ought always to be. He refused to compromise, when it came to telling the truth. We admired that, even when we resisted the truth he wanted to bring to our dinner table on any given evening. And he was courteous to others, even to those with whom he obviously disagreed—qualities we ought to cultivate and practice in a world in which the rules seemed to be slipping, so that people seemed inclined to behave like animals towards each other, and not with humanity.

He never condescended. He put everyone at his ease. A gentleman can talk with equal composure to a president or a street sweeper. In the final analysis, a person’s social status doesn’t matter. What matters is the quality of that person’s character, something Rev. King kept stressing in every speech he gave, and how could we disagree, even when we knew he wanted to use that rubric to crack our social world wide open?

A man of integrity who was not afraid to go where his pursuit of the truth led him, even when that pursuit led him to speak out against his own friends, against those with whom he rubbed shoulders, those who sat with him at the tables of power. A journalist par excellence. And a human being par excellence.

That’s who Walter Cronkite was to me. That’s the man to whom my mother taught me to listen carefully as he delivered the nightly news in the 1960s, the man she encouraged me to become, no matter what vocation I chose in my adult life.

A man—a type of man—whose absence will leave a definite hole in the heart of our society. A man to remember, celebrate, and admire. And, insofar as possible, even in a postmodern world very different from the one in which he came of age, a man to emulate, who leaves behind a legacy to be carried on by other truth-tellers, since the challenge of seeking and telling the truth never goes away, no matter how seismic the shifts in the world around us.