Skip to comments.Watson and Walter: Missouri's Show and Tell
Posted on 07/23/2009 6:22:37 AM PDT by Jack Bull
Last weekend two men from the Show Me state simultaneously commanded some 96-plus hours of television, radio and print news coverage. Both were considered leaders in their professional field. Both men went on to become wealthy, famous, respected, and admired by peers and fans alike. Each man would receive the highest professional honors to be bestowed. One of the men is commemorated in Jefferson City's capitol rotunda with a bronze bust. A major university named an entire school of study after him. The other man is revered in portraits and famous photographs adorning the walls of premier country clubs all across the country. The parallels between the men are many, but when it came to living the motto of their shared home state, only one really showed us.
CBS Anchorman Walter Cronkite, called the most trusted man in America while in the network's anchor chair for nearly 20 years died last Friday. All major news programs, both local and national launched what seemed to be morbidly pre-produced tributes. That's not an editorial comment to be clear. The CBS tribute that aired Sunday (7/19) featured Uncle Walter's second successor to his anchor chair - Katie Couric.
The significance of Walter Cronkite cannot be ignored. He had power in his day. The Associated Press reported, When Cronkite took sides, he helped shape the times. After the 1968 Tet offensive, he visited Vietnam and wrote and narrated a "speculative, personal" report advocating negotiations leading to the withdrawal of American troops. Cronkite declared American forces mired in a stalemate. After the broadcast aired, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
This moment in time did untold damage to the profession that made Cronkite famous. Commentary, narratives and taking sides became the new standard in journalism. News, facts, information the traditional who, what, where, when, and why of reporting was shelved for speculative and personal. Once the genie of comment was out of the newsroom bottle there was no turning back. The most trusted man in America became the most biased man in America and sadly created a perverted template to which all future journalists would aspire.
Cronkite would spend his years in retirement lobbying for campaign finance reform and trashing organizations like Fox News. The former anchor's activist golden years ranged from disturbing to hypocritical and allowed a peek into the mind of the man in whose basket America once put all her eggs.
Cronkite was also a firm believer in the human culpability of what was once called global warming - now climate change. Posting on the Huffington Post back in 2005 Cronkite wrote, The governments of the world have tarried long enough, and the United States is scarcely without doubt the greatest culprit among them. This is America's most trusted man? If your name is Castro, perhaps.
The other captivating storyline of last weekend was that of professional golfer Tom Watson. In the prime of his golf career, he was one of the leading players in the world. Watson won eight major championships and topped the PGA Tour money list five times in the late seventies and early eighties. Twenty six years after his last major tournament victory, Watson made history last weekend as the oldest player to ever lead a major and come ever-so-close to winning it all.
Unlike Cronkite, Watson never retired from the game that made him famous. His profile had diminished significantly on the national stage. He remained a star on the senior circuit, but betting folks would have said his competitive days in the majors were behind him. Watson never accepted that narrative, carping and pining away as an elder commentator about the way the game once was or should be today. Tom Watson embodied and celebrated individual exceptionalism. Not content to use his status to remake, complain about, or reinvent the thing that made him famous.
Walter Cronkite used his status to remake and reform the country that put so much faith in him for so many years. He saw the country as a place unfair, unjust, and guilty on the world stage. He wished to create a collectivist, global community where no one nation or people lead or achieve beyond another. Cronkite used his fame not to tell us the way it is, as he so famously used to close each broadcast. Instead he spent his career and retirement telling us the way it should be. Watson used his status much differently.
In 1991, Tom Watson terminated his long-time membership with the Kansas City Country Club. He did so in protest of the club's exclusionary membership policies of Jews and minorities. The negative public scrutiny the club received led them to change their policy. Even in this instance, Watson acted only individually in defense of the individual. Watson did in 1991 what he did on the course last weekend at the British Open. He didn't sue the club. He didn't rewrite the rules of golf to suit his style. Tom Watson stood on individual principle, spoke only for himself, and played within the rules of his profession.
Walter Cronkite was an American and a Missourian who described the way the country was as he saw it. Tom Watson is an American and a Missourian who described that which makes our country great as he showed it.