The word most associated with Walter Cronkite is one that hardly ever gets used to describe individuals in media these days: "trust."
"The most trusted man in America" was his reputation. And it wasn't just a rep: Polls in the 1970s supported that notion. That's interesting because it became rather clear in Cronkite's retirement years that he was what could be considered conventionally liberal.
Indeed, that wasn't much of a surprise: After all, it's been reported that George McGovern had toyed with the idea of selecting Cronkite as his running mate in 1972 against Richard Nixon. Obviously, a nominee wouldn't have even entertained that idea if he didn't think that, to some extent, Cronkite shared his views.
It goes without saying that the GOP never entertained the thought of bringing Cronkite on board. But, at the same time, Cronkite never engendered the raw animosity from Republicans that his successor, Dan Rather, did. It was hardly a surprise that Rather's end on the CBS Evening News came in the rather ignominious fashion of being caught in a blogger storm that he sparked with a poorly reported story about George W. Bush's military service.
A direct line of Rather-GOP dust-ups could be drawn from Richard Nixon asking a reporting Rather if he was "running for something" (to which Rather responded, "No, sir, are you.") to George H.W. Bush's on-air fight with the newsman, to the latter Bush's military service controversy. And how oddly fitting that new media -- reflecting a new political non-consensus -- brought down Cronkite's seemingly arrogant successor.
One reason why Cronkite was universally adored: He had his views on stories (as when a rare on-air editorial against the Vietnam War helped seal Lyndon Johnson's doom), but he declined to make -- or let -- himself become the story. Cronkite believed that the anchor chair was more important than he himself was -- exactly the opposite of Rather. (Cronkite would never have walked off the set in a huff the way Rather did in 1987, leaving a black screen for nearly seven minutes.)
But, considering Cronkite was personally liberal, how did he manage to be seen as "trusted" in a way neither Katie Couric nor Brian Williams nor even ABC's Charlie Gibson are today? It's quite simple. Cronkite may have been liberal -- but, generally speaking, so was the country. Cronkite was an anchor for the twilight of the liberal social-political consensus that formed post Depression and World War II. As has been noted, Cronkite became a fixture because he seemed to be the rock in the hurricane that was the 1960s and '70s, pushing aside the "can-do" American sensibility of the '40s and '50s.
He brought into American households news of an unpopular war, assassinations, riots, a presidential resignation, etc. Through it all, his take was laconic, with the notable exception of the JFK assassination, when his emotion welled to the surface. His Vietnam editorial was a rare time when his opinion on the news of the day was made most clear. But he was reporting to an America that was only beginning to assess broad changes that had taken over the country since the days of FDR, Truman and Eisenhower.
Rather than telling Americans how they should feel about the changes, Cronkite acted as a guide with just a tad more understanding on what was going on than everyone at home. He may have had his own views on the role of government, and perhaps on taxes and social programs too, but his respect for the chair was such that he held back in favor of reporting the facts of a world spinning faster and faster.
Today, the liberal political consensus is long dead. The liberal media consensus took much longer to fade. It took the rise of talk radio in the '70s and '80s, cable in the '90s and the Internet in the '00s to create multiple streams of information -- the totality of which forced the American people to start trusting the sources of information on a case-by-case basis.
There can never be another Walter Cronkite because the world he reported on no longer exists.