Thursday, July 23, 2009

The booming voice of a generation

As most of you know, Walter Cronkite died recently at 92. I grew up watching the Old Uncle conveying news with gravity and serenity, and I witnessed firsthand at the age of 9 his rarely seen emotion at the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

Here is a magnificent tribute to Cronkite by a good friend Dan Puckett, who says all that I wanted to say on the subject.

If the page does not come up, here it is below.

For a while [after the advent of television], a certain voice continued. Booming. As though history were still a thing done by certain men in a certain place. It was embarrassing. To a person growing up in the power of demography, this voice was foolish.— “Within the Context of No Context,” George W.S. Trow, 1980Walter Cronkite died Friday. He was 92. His death was big news, because for two decades that ended almost 30 years ago, he was a popular television news anchorman. That means that for a half-hour a day, five days a week, he appeared on a broadcast network and read the news in a voice that many people found comforting.

A poll in 1972 found that he was the most trusted man in America. For about half of his time on the CBS Evening News, more people watched his news half-hour than any other news half-hour. He was said to be professional and composed. When his composure broke, the breaking of his composure was considered remarkable. Moving, even. He was professionally emotionless, but some events trump professionalism. People spoke of his emotional reaction to the assassination of the president (tears) or the first landing on the moon (excitement).

His death was big news, because people who remembered him remembered him vividly. Or maybe they didn’t remember him so much as the time when his voice — booming — went into such a large percentage of American homes. When he disparaged the war after a trip to Vietnam, everyone knew who he was, and knew what he’d said.

More than one “appreciation” of the man and his career barely mentioned him or his career, instead relating memories of the period during which he had his career. Giants then walked the land of television news, and their voices — booming — were heard from coast to coast. All television news was in three parts divided, and the names of those three parts were written with three letters each, and of the three parts (after 1970-ish, at least), the biggest and best was the part over which Cronkite reigned.But the appreciations weren’t so much for the giant that was Cronkite or even for the part that was his dominion, but for the time itself. In that, they were good, they were right, they were just. He is remembered for narrating an era, and the appreciations were, first, for the era and second, only second, for the way he narrated it. He is remembered for narrating the 1960s and ‘70s in a voice honed in the 1940s and ‘50s. He provided the narration in the voice of a newsreel narrator, updated to a postwar cadence and tone but still — booming.

This is the president, dying. This is a war, failing. This is an astronaut, landing. This is a convention, this is a recession, this is a coup, this is a scandal. And that’s the way it is.

The appreciators appreciated the comfort of the authority in his voice, the assurance that history was a thing done by certain men in a certain place — this is history, happening, and that’s the way it is. The appreciators observed that no one these days has the certitude to assure a nation that it is any way at all — or no, that’s not it, many do, too many, and they’re describing it as being this way or that way or some other way, and none of them are giants, none of them bestride America’s living rooms or conversations. None of them find a nation agreeing: Yes, that is the way it is.Without that agreement there are no giants, just cranks — surly cranks, sunny cranks, excited cranks, gloomy cranks, but just a cacophonous crank chorus of bad journalistic karaoke.

There was a time that lacked that cacophony. There was a time when the cranks were hushed because a nation agreed. There was a time when “the most trusted man in America” obtained its agreement. It was an interesting time. For many people, it was an exciting time, a time of liberation and pleasure and hope. It is a time fondly remembered, not just for the experience, but for the descriptions of the experience.

During that experience, the daily, on-the-spot, as-it-happens description of the experience came in a voice that many found comforting. And as much as the appreciators tried to appreciate the man behind the voice, or the voice itself, what they ended up appreciating was not so much a certain description of the experience, but the experience itself, and the chance to relive it.

The time, though, was more than just the emotional reactions to it. It had a content, and that content was an overturning — of power, of authority, of submission to certain mores. To overturn those things, the overturners had to undermine their ability to compel obedience. It had to undermine the agreement, because that was the only way to stop the voices that supported it with their booming.

So a time devoted to overturning was narrated by the voice born, trained and made to boom by all the things that were being overturned. Hearing the overturn described by the voice of the overturned was emotionally powerful.

The architects of the coming culture were not all young; the defenders of the fading culture were not all old. But the emotional logo of the struggle for the new culture was the son killing the father.

Listening to Cronkite describe the dawning of the new age was like listening to the father — dispassionately, objectively, professionally — describe his own murder. Listening to Cronkite describe the other events of the time was a steady reassurance that outside the struggle for the new culture, life went on: Violence in the living room didn’t stop the clocks from ticking, the dinner from cooking, the sun from shining. Life went on. Astronauts landed, the Dow rose and fell, Elvis bloated and died. Life went on.

There had never been a time like it, and it’s impossible now.

Which is something to appreciate.

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