When I first met Walter Cronkite I was under great duress. It was September of 1998 and my boss had dispatched me to CBS Headquarters – Black Rock – to convince the iconic broadcasting legend to work with a 39-year old journeyman TV reporter toiling in the cable vineyards covering the science and technology beat – namely me.
It was not a mission to savor for a lot of reasons. The story began several months prior when NASA Administrator Dan Goldin announced Senator John Glenn would get another chance to orbit the earth – this time on a space shuttle. Naturally, this generated a DEFCON-1 media frenzy and at CNN we got busy with a plan that would rival the D-Day invasion.
In the midst of this, my predecessor on the space beat – and an icon in his own right – John Holliman got the crazy idea to call up Walter Cronkite’s office to see if he would be interested in working with us to tell this story of Glenn’s mission nearly 37 years after he became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Holliman’s idea was as brilliant as it was bold: the perfect alignment of two of the most famous people of that era – the quintessential Right Stuff Hero and the man who everyone knew and trusted – and who covered the moon race from JFK’s “we choose the moon…”speech at Rice University to “we’re turning blue…” landing at Tranquility Base forty years ago Monday.
But the most amazing thing was Walter had said “yes”. No one was sure why at the time, but I got an inkling later…
The plan had called for me to be Holliman’s second during the mission – it was a role I played frequently at that time and I was perfectly happy just to be invited to the party at all.
But then everything changed on Saturday morning September 12, 1998. Holliman was making his son a waffle breakfast but realized he didn’t have any maple syrup. He dashed out to the store to get some – and never came home. In his haste, he had crossed a double yellow line and his Saturn was no match for the oncoming pickup truck.
It was a terrible loss for everyone at CNN. Holliman was an “original” – there when Ted Turner flipped the switch on 24-hour cable news in June of 1980 – and one of the “Boys from Baghdad” who scored the greatest “beat” in CNN history by reporting for hours on an open phone line as US bombs fell on Baghdad during the Gulf War.
As we grieved his loss, word reached us that Walter was getting cold feet. It was Holliman that had cooked up and cut the deal – and now that he was gone, Walter was no longer comfortable with the notion.
I was quickly summoned to CNN Chairman Tom Johnson’s office overlooking the newsroom and was told I would now be anchoring our coverage of John Glenn’s return to space and I was to get up to New York as quickly as I could to convince Walter Cronkite that I was worthy enough to work with him.
It is hard to describe the crosscurrents of emotion tugging at me as I walked into Black Rock in midtown Manhattan – sadness, dread, anxiety, and to be quite frank, excitement at the prospect of meeting the seminal anchorman.
I was met by Walter’s longtime chief of staff Marlene Adler – who quickly put me at ease. It was clear to me she was rooting for me on my mission impossible – and I later learned that she was a big fan of mine. I had an ace in the hole.
When I finally met the man, I instantly felt as if I was with my favorite uncle. It is an illusion most anyone of my era would experience – having grown up with the man “in” my living room every night.
After the pleasantries, he started asking me some questions about space – testing the breadth and depth of my knowledge. Fortunately, I had been covering NASA for six years by that time and was a fairly knowledgeable space cadet. I felt like I was passing the test – but it was no cakewalk. His questions were smart, insightful and at times pointed. It really was a grilling, but he managed to put me at ease (which was, of course, the secret sauce to his enduring success as an anchor).
Having passed the space knowledge test, the conversation took an encouraging turn: We talked about how we would work together covering the launch.
And this is when I almost blew the whole deal.
I made the mistake of telling Walter (actually I think I was still addressing him as “Mr. Cronkite” – or was it “Your Anchorness”?) that he didn’t need to worry about the technical details and mission history of the space shuttle – that I would handle that – and all he had to do is simply regale viewers with tales of the Mercury 7 glory days. In other words, he would be my “Wally” (referring to Walter’s great friend and Mercury 7 astronaut Wall Schirra – who sat with Walter through many a moonshot telecast – including the Apollo 11 landing forty years ago).
In an instant, the thermostat went down – the warmth chilled by annoyance. I had offended his journalistic pride in a big way.
“If I am going to be a part of this, I need to report the story – not just reminisce.” he informed me. “I need research on every shuttle mission so far…the dates, the crew, the mission objective, whether the objective was met and any other newsworthy aspects. Can you do that for me?”
“For all 94 missions?” I said rather meekly.
He confessed he was surprised there had been that many shuttle missions. My first thought: if NASA had lost Walter Cronkite’s interest, there is no doubt the agency had lost the nation…
But my much more immediate concern was making sure Walter got what he wanted as quickly as possible – which I vowed to do. I told him it sure was going to be a thick research book.
He told me that is how he always did it. He pored over everything – made a ton of notes to himself – brought it all to the set – and then never referred to it. It was all there in his head – and it flowed out along with events.
He was still a reporter’s reporter with some fire in his belly.
There was one other thing on my mind that day. He was 81 at that time, and the years had not been good on his ears. I was speaking very loudly and deliberately and he still struggled to hear me.
As I left, now fairly certain I had salvaged the deal, I told Marlene we might have to raise the volume in his earpiece significantly and include my voice in his “mix” so that he could hear me as we covered the launch. She said he did not have an earpiece – she would get him fitted for one – but she warned he would not want to hear producers yammering away while he was on the air.
“So how does he get time cues?” I asked.
“He always had a set producer, Sandy Socolow, who sat just out of camera view wearing a headset – relaying information from the control room.”
“I guess we need his services as well,” said I.
“Yes, you do,” said Marlene.
As I left the building, all those emotional eddies started roiling once again. But there was a new one: euphoria. I had proved myself worthy to the man who pioneered television journalism – and I would be able to say Walter Cronkite was my co-anchor. Which brought on another emotion: stark terror.
And my worst fears nearly came true. More on that tomorrow.