Magazine | January 25, 2010, Issue

The Road Goes On Forever

Who has the best job in the world? When I was a boy, I had no doubt that it was Charles Kuralt, a balding, paunchy correspondent for CBS News who spent his days roaming around America in a battered white motor home, stopping along the way to file feature stories about plain-spoken, good-hearted men and women who carved merry-go-round horses by hand, made bricks out of mud, and led untroubled lives in towns even smaller than the one in which I grew up. Anyone who remembersThe CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite remembers Kuralt’s “On the Road” segments, which ran every week or so from 1967 to 1980, and some of those memories are likely to be surprisingly sharp. Does Jethro Mann’s name ring any bells? He’s the fellow who loaned bicycles to the children of a village in North Carolina — for free. I saw him on The CBS Evening News half a lifetime ago, and I bet I could still pick him out of a lineup.

If you remember the Bicycle Man, you can get to know him again by ordering a copy of On the Road with Charles Kuralt, Set 1, a newly released three-DVD box set from Acorn Media that contains 76 “On the Road” stories, including some of the most celebrated ones. Kuralt’s tribute to the men who built the Golden Gate Bridge is here. So is his Thanksgiving visit to a pair of Mississippi sharecroppers who put all nine of their children through college. So are a fair number of the other pieces that kept me tuning in to The CBS Evening News long after I parted political ways with its avuncular anchorman. Some are frankly sentimental, others light and charming. Virtually all of them remain watchable to this day.

Not only did Kuralt have an uncanny ability to sniff out heartwarming stories, but he was smart enough to keep the focus on his interviewees rather than himself. He was a stalwart and lifelong advocate of what he called “the tricycle principle,” which he formulated after watching a local TV newsman cover a children’s tricycle race. At the end of the story, the camera cut to the reporter, who was riding a tricycle. Kuralt winced at that kind of self-aggrandizement. “Keep yourself out of the story,” he said. “The people who are watching it are not interested in you.”

Instead of riding tricycles, Kuralt put his stamp on his “On the Road” pieces by coming up with exactly the right words to sum up the people he portrayed. This is how he ended his story about Alex and Mary Chandler, the sharecroppers who picked cotton and pulled corn in order to give their children more abundant lives: “There probably are no lessons in any of this. But I know that in the future, whenever I hear that the family is a dying institution, I’ll think of them. Whenever I hear anything in America is impossible, I’ll think of them.”

That kind of writing was what made Kuralt’s portraits inimitable. “I could have shot them on toilet paper,” said Isadore Bleckman, his longtime cameraman, “and he would have given them truth.”

The producers of The CBS Evening News were well aware of what Kuralt brought to the program. He hit the road around the time when conservatives were first starting to talk about political bias in the news media. Back then there were still only three TV networks, and Walter Cronkite and his fellow anchormen mattered to Middle America in a way that is no longer imaginable. Many of Cronkite’s viewers were deeply disturbed when he expressed his opposition to the war at the end of one of his 1968 newscasts. It had never before occurred to them that their beloved Uncle Walter might have a political agenda of his own — or that the stories that aired each night on The CBS Evening News might reflect that agenda.

#page# “On the Road,” by contrast, embodied no political agendas of any kind. “I have attempted to keep ‘relevance’ and ‘significance’ entirely out of all the stories I sent back,” Kuralt wrote in 1985. He wasn’t kidding. His sole purpose was to make Americans feel better about themselves at a time when many of them were starting to question the goodness of the land in which they lived: “Most Americans, it turns out, are not running for office, not running from the police, and not alienated from their society. Their lives are well filled, their nature is generous, and they are at peace with their neighbors.”

That was Kuralt’s agenda, and it came through loud and clear. “Sandwiched between the daily barrage of riots, wars, and demonstrations on the Cronkite show, Kuralt’s slices of Americana are like a two-minute ceasefire,” Time wrote three months after CBS aired the first “On the Road” segment. His importance to The CBS Evening News was to grow greater still. Throughout the Seventies, “On the Road” had the same tranquilizing effect on Cronkite’s viewers that Ed Murrow’s Person to Person telecasts had had on viewers a decade earlier. Murrow may have been the establishment liberal who socked it to Joe McCarthy, but he was also the handsome, deep-voiced gent who brought celebrities like Bing Crosby, Humphrey Bogart, and Groucho Marx into your living room every Friday night. Though Murrow’s critics assured him that Person to Person was show-biz pap unworthy of a newsman, he knew better. “Listen, do you know what I can get away with because Person to Person is a big hit?” he told one of them. That was what Charles Kuralt did for Uncle Walter.

Like most TV stars, Kuralt wasn’t quite the man he seemed to be on the small screen. No sooner did he put the road behind him to become the host of Sunday Morning than he revealed himself to be yet another standard-issue school-of-Murrow liberal. “It is liberalism, whether people like it or not, which has animated all the years of my life,” he said in a farewell interview that aired shortly after he retired from CBS in 1994. “What on earth did conservatism ever accomplish for our country?” Nor was his private life in close accord with the homespun values that he celebrated on the air. After his death in 1997 it was revealed that the twice-married Kuralt had been keeping a mistress in Montana (he met her, not surprisingly, while filming an “On the Road” segment).

My mother, who was one of Kuralt’s biggest fans, never got over discovering that he’d been a philanderer. But now that America’s red–blue cultural chasm has grown wider than ever, I suspect she’d be inclined to forgive him his trespasses in return for being able to see him on TV again. For her, and for the rest of us who faithfully followed his wanderings up and down the backroads of America, On the Road with Charles Kuralt, Set 1 will make a perfect gift. To spend a few comforting minutes with the likes of Alex and Mary Chandler is to be reminded of the existence of a country that is rarely seen on TV these days. “It’s refreshing to us to realize that the country isn’t in flames,” Kuralt said in 1968. It still is.

– Mr. Teachout, drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and chief culture critic of Commentary, is the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

Terry TeachoutMr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his 2011 play about Louis Armstrong, has been produced off Broadway and throughout America.

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