“And That’s the Way It Is” by
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(193 Stories)

Prompted By Broadcast News

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I recently had my one-year belated 50th college reunion. It was chock full of fascinating and thoughtful classmate panels and other programs (as it damn well better have, since I was one of the people on the reunion committee in charge of them). But, as I knew would be the case — for myself as much as for my classmates — the best part of the reunion was just sitting around together over meals and talking, talking, talking.

And that activity was, for many of us, also our most favorite memory of our college years. Indeed, I remember that, subject to class schedules, my roomies and other pals would line up for dinner in our dining hall most nights at 5:30, exactly when it opened.  And it certainly was not because of the promise of delicious food — as one of my pals noted, “Back then, Harvard Dining Services put the ‘shun’ in ‘institutional food.'”   Rather, it was to maximize the opportunity for all that talking, talking, talking.

But this week’s prompt on broadcast news made me also remember that, for all this enjoyable talking, we always had a “hard stop” at five minutes to seven. Why? Because we would then rush back up to our suite and turn on my little Philco portable TV to watch the CBS Evening New with Walter Cronkite at 7:00.  Here is what that TV looked like:

And while there were usually a lot of us watching Cronkite, we crammed into my small bedroom rather than move the TV out to our spacious living room.  The reason for that — as well as my justifiable fear that the TV would be damaged if regularly exposed to the mayhem that often occured in our living room — was that the rabbit ears (remember those?) were pretty useless,  However, in my bedroom, I could run a wire from the back to the TV to the radiator just behind the table it sat on and this would serve to get fairly reasonable reception.  In that way, the TV could pull in at least the affiliates of the then-three major networks, as well as — equally importantly — Channel 38 on UHF which, as other ancient Boston sports fans will remember, used to broadcast all the Celtics and Bruins games.

But, at 7:00 p.m. on weeknights, all we would watch would be Cronkite on CBS.  And why was that?  Not surprisingly, the most important news of the day (1968-71) was the Vietnam War. The War usually led off Cronkite’s broadcast and Cronkite was, quite simply, considered THE authoritative source of news about the War.  We certainly knew we couldn’t rely on what LBJ, and then Nixon, and their administrations were telling us, but we also knew that we could not blindly accept all that the anti-war movement was putting out. But we — and, indeed, the whole country — felt we could rely on what “Uncle Walter” reported.

I remember that there was one particular broadcast where Cronkite took the rare step of editorializing and turned to the television audience and said, in effect, “This is a bad war. We must end it.”  And, as I recall, one of my roomies then  turned to the rest of us and said, “Well, once you lose Uncle Walter, you’ve lost the country.” But if my roomie didn’t say it, someone else — possibly an op-ed writer in the Times — did.  In any event, it was true.  That moment when Cronkite said what he did really started to turn everything around about the War — and not just among us students (we’d been there for years), but among the entire US citizenry and, indeed, in Washington as well.

Cronkite’s signature sign-off line was, “And that’s the way it is.”  In retrospect (ahem), that sounds awfully pompous and presumptuous.  But Cronkite was that credible and that was how we in the audience felt.  If Cronkite said it, it was.

It is hard to imagine a single newsperson with as much credibility today.  To be sure, the millions of mindless morons who watch Tucker Carlson on Fox every night buy into every lie he tells, but Carlson is not a journalist (to put it mildly) and, while these Fox viewers may blindly believe that “that’s the way it is,” many more millions of Americans with many more brain cells utterly reject what he spews forth.  While Carlson will eventually be relegated to the trash heap of demagogues where he so rightly belongs, Cronkite will endure.

And, as Cronkite himself noted (of course) in signing off on his final news broadcast in 1981, “That’s the way it is.”

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Amusing Postscript

Fast forward about five years after my college graduation.  I am now a young New York lawyer (as is my then-wife) and we’re living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  One night, we were dining in a favorite Italian restaurant in our neighborhood when we both noticed that there seemed to be a TV on in the other dining room of the restaurant.  As there had never been a TV in there before — this was an upscale restaurant, not a sports bar — I said that I would check it out by going to the men’s room, which was accessed through the other dining room.  I returned to the table a few minutes later with a big smile on my face.  “There isn’t a TV in the other room,” I explained to my wife.  “What we heard was Walter Cronkite having dinner with his wife and another couple.”

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Perfectly told tale of committed young people following Cronkite’s every word, John. His thoughts were definitive and when he turned against Vietnam (he had traveled there and witnessed it in person), that was IT!

    You might have seen him on the Upper East Side, but we saw him frequently in Edgartown (he once took a grandchild to a Pokemon card-trading event that I had taken my kid to also; he was affable, just another grandfather). We’d see him out on the harbor, sailing his boat. He was well-respected, but the ethos here is to leave the celebrities alone and that’s exactly what we did. He is much missed. His house on the harbor was sold after his death, gutted and totally renovated, like everything else around this place.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. And I knew he had a place in the Vineyard and was a pretty serious sailor. And, of course, that celebrity ethos is pretty well respected in NY too. No one was bothering him during dinner.

  2. Thanx for your Cronkite story John, and for the glimpse of you and your classmates soaking up the Vietnam news on the little rabbit-ears TV in your dorm room.

    And I loved hearing that you spotted Cronkite in that UES Italian restaurant. We knew he lived in our neighborhood, in fact I’d often detour down his block in hopes of seeing him, but we did see him one summer at the Martha’s Vineyard airport after he’d retired.

    He stopped to chat with us and was very gracious, we of course were in awe.

  3. Marian says:

    Cool story, John, and love the wire connected to the radiator to get a signal. Cronkite was all that. Hard to imagine someone like him coming along again.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Of course, you know I agree with your assessment of Cronkite since we chose the same title for our stories. I miss being able to listen to someone of his stature in what now passes for 24/7 cable news. I loved the details in your story — especially the college mealtime ritual and the tv with rabbit ears (yes, I remember those) hooked up to the radiator

  5. Suzy says:

    Thanks for your great Cronkite story. Had I known that’s what you were doing at 7 pm every night, I would have joined you! Love that four of you writers picked the Cronkite signoff for your story titles – but you were the first!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Of course, you would have been more than welcome (especially being right across the hall), so sorry you didn’t know about our nightly rendezvous with Uncle Walter.

      And not surprising that so many great Retro minds think alike.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    I was impressed by the talking, talking, talking and wonder if it still the same in college now, since everyone may be glued to his/her/their devices. Yes, I remember rabbit ears, and am impressed that you had a TV at all. The news in those years was critical because the war had such a direct impact on people our age–the draft especially. You describe Cronkite’s break from reporting to say the war was bad–a momentous thing then. Today, newscasters opine over the death of democracy and the rule of law and ho hum.

  7. betsyhaynes says:

    It helped me remember why I didn’t listen to Walter Cronkite! His voice was wonderfully soothing and I would have enjoyed having him as a doting uncle, but I never trusted his pronouncements. While you were in Cambridge, MA, I traveled to Madison, WIsconsin. First to check out the school in the spring ‘68. I traveled with Jamie Galbraith so we were picked up at the airport, by Midge Miller! She was active in the Democratic Party, and became more involved in politics in future decades. She took us to her house and we met her children and they showed us around. As soon as I saw State Street, I really liked the place and vibes! I came back in the fall as a freshman. WIsconsin was wild then. A new awareness for me and so many other kids! We were marching all over the campus and being directed by early tech people, who were eavesdropping on the police communications, and evading the police trying to block us! I was really a no nothing, small teenage girl, but I was assisting the guy filming for New York Newsreel! Because I liked photography and was slightly afraid of the police, it was reassuring to be helping this guy!
    (Jim Strickland).
    Well, it was a wonderful time!

  8. betsyhaynes says:

    Hello John,
    This is Betsy Haynes. Do you remember picking me up and giving me a ride to Amity High School? I think that you were a junior and I was a freshman? I went to Cambridge, MA and lived with Gay & Dick Harter (Spykman)
    for my last 2 years of High School.
    I read your piece about the most wonderful Easter Egg Hunts at EC Spykman’s house! It was brilliant and really caught the sheer joy of the event! She was my Godmother and a friend to everyone in my Mother’s family. (Sackett). Gay & Patsy have remained my dear friends. I live in Monona, WI and have a farm in rural WIsconsin. My younger sisters live in WI also. I am married to Allan Rifkin, who was a doctor/professor at UW-Madison.
    And we have 2 children, Lucas & Joy. My phone # is 608-843-0399 if you’d care to talk? Thanks!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Hi, Betsy. Great to hear from you. I definitely remember you and driving to Amity with you Back in the Day. And so happy you also remember Mrs. Spykman’s wonderful Easter egg hunts. I didn’t know she was your godmother, but knew your families were close.

      Coincidentally, my parents met when they were both students at UW Madison and my wife and I lived outside of Milwaukee from 2010-15, and we loved going to Madison (for the cool vibe, not the politics then in the State Capital).

      Welcome to Retro, Betsy!

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