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RIP Walter Cronkite

I had a brief run-in with Walter Cronkite about 10 years ago, at a party celebrating the 100th anniversary of my college newspaper, The Daily Texan. I wish I had a more inspiring story to account, but that was in 1999, and Mr. Cronkite already had entered the slightly raving stage of his later career, although he was not yet at the point of accusing Karl Rove of being in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. Winston Churchill’s definition of a fanatic — a man who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject — captures my impression of Mr. Cronkite at that time, as he was quite emotionally fixated on the presidential campaign.
It was the sort of experience that is tediously familiar to conservatives: You meet somebody who starts ranting in the most intemperate fashion about conservatives and/or Republicans, and it is clear that they cannot imagine that they might be speaking to one. (Harry Stein has a book out about this curious phenomenon.) Mr. Cronkite took it for granted that his opinions were shared, and shared because they were self-evidently true, and that seems to me to be the main defect of the media culture that holds him up as a hero.
The thing about Cronkite, though: Before he was Uncle Walter and the Voice of Authority, he was a real reporter, tearing around Europe in World War II as a United Press correspondent, occasionally manning the machine gun in the nose-cone of a Flying Fortress, covering everything from the Battle of the Bulge to Nuremberg. He was, by most accounts, remarkably modest about his work during the war, joking that the only injury he ever suffered was cutting his finger on a bouquet of tulips during a victory parade in Amsterdam. That Walter Cronkite, not the one who became the institutional face of the self-absorbed media establishment, is the one I admire.

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