The Other Walter Cronkite

I knew Walter Cronkite. Like most people of my generation, the resonant voice and expressive face of this man accompanied me through the most critical public moments of challenge, grief, and celebration in our world. Each day, he helped me better understand history-altering events as well as more common occurrences that were news. For more than a decade, though, I have known the conscience, heart, and spirit of Walter Cronkite.

During the hours since Walter Cronkite took his last breath, media outlets have done a superb job recalling his influential journalistic career. Walter Cronkite became "the most trusted man in America" because he held as sacred his commitment to journalism that rigorously distinguished professional objectivity from personal opinion. He refused to participate in organizations, associations, or social activism that burdened him with even the appearance of a bias. After his retirement from anchoring the CBS Evening News, however, Walter Cronkite felt free, and even obligated, to express his personal opinions on movements and ideas impacting our nation.

But he was much more then an expert journalist. As a man of personal faith who loved his country and its Constitution, Walter Cronkite looked on with alarm as self-appointed religious
authorities attempted to prescribe policy for the government. That was when he decided to endorse Interfaith Alliance -- the first organization with which he identified himself -- and speak on behalf of its national efforts to strengthen religious liberty and to challenge the manipulation of religion by politicians and attempts at the utilization of the institutions of government to advance religion.

Walter Cronkite's close association with Interfaith Alliance, of which he served as honorary chairman, afforded me an opportunity to know him in a manner most people did not. I learned the joy resident in his long years of marriage to Betsey and the pride and support he demonstrated in relation to his children. The journalist who reported on the intricacies of the space program also was the man who delighted in talking about the musical score of a recent concert or a new opera.

Walter Cronkite was as committed to truth-telling in private as in public. Never did he hesitate to question, to challenge, or to correct a decision of Interfaith Alliance. In his own work, I watched him seek the most honest way to deal with each issue effectively and honestly. In this context I learned of Walter Cronkite's humility. Though I was confounded by the times he asked me "What should I do?" or "Will you give me your counsel on this article?" always aware that he was the expert and I was the student. Not one time in his presence did I see arrogance or presumptuousness apparent.

An incredible breadth of interest and depth of conscience caused Walter Cronkite to want to challenge the movement called the religious right. One day after doing an interview together in his home, a reporter asked about his personal religion. "It's none of your business," Mr. Cronkite replied courteously but sternly, "That's why I am a part of the Interfaith Alliance." He no more wanted anyone judged by their religion than he wanted people to use their religion to advance their public status in the nation. Yet, privately, he sincerely spoke of the role of religion in his life.

On his 90th birthday, Walter was enthusiastic and happy. Interfaith Alliance threw a party for him as a part of the annual gala at which the Walter Cronkite Faith & Freedom Award is bestowed on an honoree. George Clooney was the recipient of the award that year. As we talked that night, I remembered the words that are on my mind now as I cope with saying farewell to Walter Cronkite. He was speaking to me about my leadership and the mission of Interfaith Alliance. "Nothing less is at stake in your work," he said to me privately, "than democracy as we have known it."

We have lost an exemplary journalist to be sure. There may never be another like him. But we have lost as well a true patriot, an active participant in democracy, a grand story-teller, an advocate for the arts, a courageous visionary, a defender of freedom, a truth-teller of the highest order, a caring father, and a compassionate friend. That was the way it was for a man whom we all trusted to tell us "That's the way it is."