As a reporter for the Portland Press Herald in the early 1980s, my notebook and pen in hand, I walked up to Walter Cronkite at a Maine Mall bookstore. I figured I had him cornered and I went in for the kill.
“Isn’t it a bit commercial for you to be selling books?” I asked. I assured myself he wouldn’t be able to wiggle out of this hard-hitting question. I was full of myself, proud as a peacock.
“Well, sure,” was the former CBS News anchor’s comeback.
Walter Cronkite had disarmed me. I had no comeback.
Cronkite had been in Portland to hawk a book he had written about his adventures sailing along the Maine coast. I was assigned to cover the Maine leg of his national book tour. I went into the assignment looking for a way to avoid writing a puff piece about Cronkite’s book. I drove to the bookstore sure I was armed with the question that would leave a journalistic titan speechless.
But I came out of it with my tail between my legs. Once Cronkite acknowledged the obvious – that he was a newsman doing what I thought newsmen shouldn’t do – I had nowhere to go. I talked to some folks who were standing in line to have their books autographed. I went back to the newsroom and wrote my story. I included in the piece the question I had tried to kill him with, and his straightforward answer.
That meeting with Cronkite was one of three times I interviewed him during my 30 years at the Press Herald.
The first time occurred in the early 1970s. I was the Rockland bureau chief when I heard from a source that Cronkite had just bought the Camden Herald, a weekly paper in Maine’s mid-coast. I remember calling the Camden Herald and grilling the editor, Jim Martin, about whether he could confirm that Cronkite had purchased the paper.
I then placed a call to CBS News in New York. I asked for Walter Cronkite, who at the time was still anchoring the CBS Evening News. Cronkite’s secretary told me he was unavailable. She promised to give him my message.
A short time passed. The phone rang. I answered it. It was Walter Cronkite. I was nervous with anticipation. I wondered what he would say to me when I hit him with his rumored purchase of the weekly Camden paper. Cronkite didn’t avoid the question. He told me, yes, it was true. I had intended to tape the conversation and I had my recorder hooked up to my phone.
After Cronkite and I finished talking and hung up, I rewound my tape. No Walter Cronkite. I had failed to properly attach the microphone to the telephone. I hadn’t taken notes during our conversation, thinking I would be able to rely on the tape. I ended up having to replay the conversation from memory to write my story. To this day I regret not having that conversation on tape because I would enjoy going back in time and hearing it.
Cronkite in 1981 sailed up to Portland on his boat, the “Wyntje.” He named the boat after the first woman who married a Cronkite in the New Amsterdam colony Nov. 16, 1642. He and his wife Betsy stopped at an Old Port restaurant to have dinner. They shared a table with Nathaniel Benchley, the author, and Benchley’s wife Marjorie. They are the parents of famed “Jaws” author Peter Benchley.
Again, I was assigned to cover Cronkite’s visit to Portland.
I walked into the restaurant with Merry Farnum, a Press Herald photographer. Merry and I waited by the door of the eatery to buttonhole Cronkite. He didn’t expect us. We were there on a rumor that Cronkite was having dinner.
After a short wait, Farnum and I saw Cronkite coming toward us. He and his wife, along with Benchley and his wife, had finished dinner. Farnum and I stopped Cronkite on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and interviewed him about his visit to Portland. He was so approachable, and made no effort to avoid us.
I asked him whether he missed anchoring the news. He had been forced into retirement six months earlier, succeeded by Dan Rather. “Well, sure,” he told me. “I don’t know whether I miss it more or less than I expected. I fully anticipated I would miss it.”
As we talked, Farnum said to him, “Would you like to tour the newsroom?”
“Well, sure,” Cronkite said, smiling. His wife said, “I knew it! I knew it.” She told her husband, “We’ll meet you at the boat. Then, deciding to go to the Old Port Tavern she added, “Should we order you a Kahlua and milk?” He said he would meet her and the Benchleys for a drink after he toured the Press Herald.
Cronkite walked with Farnum and me a block to the Press Herald and went around the newsroom, shaking hands, introducing himself. I must say, it is embarrassing for me now to admit how a newsroom full of hard-bitten journalists fawned over this guy. We were a newspaper and we were supposed to report news, not become a part of it. But heck, it was WALTER CRONKITE.
I then walked with Cronkite down to the Old Port. We chatted along the way as he window-shopped. During the walk, I had a hand-held tape recorder jammed in his face. He never complained. He took it all in stride.
So that was Cronkite as I appreciated him. Much as I tried over the years – three times, in fact – to nail him with the big questions I thought would leave him shaking in his boots, I never caught him flat-footed.
He asked the questions for 40 years, and he knew that when it came to fielding them, he had to come clean.
It may be because, beyond his human decency, he was a newsman at heart.
Ted Cohen is a South Portland resident. He left the Portland Press Herald five years ago and is now a freelance writer and occasional contributor to The Forecaster.