“He took the news seriously,” said Dan Rather. “But he didn’t take himself all that seriously, which is rare for television, let’s face it.”
It was the afternoon of Monday, July 21, and Mr. Rather was speaking about the late Walter Cronkite, who died four days earlier at the age of 92.
On camera, Cronkite was famously stoic, the perfect ideal of a composed newsman, delivering news of national victories and tragedies without rage or anger or sadness or humor. But away from the TV cameras, Cronkite was something else. He was a bit of a cut-up.
In recent days, stories of Cronkite’s idiosyncratic brand of personal levity could be found here and there amid the broader torrent of news, chronicling the newsman’s life and legacy. The New York Times reported that Cronkite liked to exchange off-color jokes with Ronald Reagan and “whimsically competed with his friend Johnny Carson to see who could take the most vacation time without getting fired.”
Throughout his adult life, Cronkite revered General Dwight Eisenhower. And like his idol, Cronkite enjoyed playing the occasional practical joke.
Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, recently recounted one to the New York Post. “We were in Cape Canaveral,” said Mr. Hewitt, “and a new reporter was arriving and Walter said to him, ‘If you just keep looking at that rocket there on that green patch at the end of the runway there, you’ll see it blast off. Just don’t take your eyes off it.’ The guy sat there for six hours waiting for it to go off. It was a lighthouse.”
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Mr. Rather recalled to the Transom a moment years ago, when Cronkite was busy at work in the CBS newsroom, which was housed in an old dairy barn on 57th Street between 10th and 11th avenues. “Everyone knew that the place was mightily infested with rats and mice,” Mr. Rather said. “The women were a little nervous about this. I don’t mean that to be gender-specific, but it’s true.”
Various news assistants were scurrying here and there, running copy around the newsroom on deadline. Cronkite waited for the right moment, and then … bazoom! He unleashed a little plastic mouse, which he had smuggled into the hotbed of rodent paranoia. Much screaming ensued.
“He immediately apologized for it, saying something along the lines that he was just trying to lighten things up around there,” said Mr. Rather. “This was very Walter-esque.”
The parties that Cronkite and his late wife, Betsy, regularly threw at their house on the Upper East Side were also good opportunities for the newsman to show off his lighter side. “He would sit at his player piano and sing songs, with some sort of crazy hat on,” said Mr. Rather. “He was an exceptionally good dancer. And for no explainable or obvious reason, he would also break into a kind of wacky dance, a Greek or Turkish-looking dance, where his legs would fly out in one direction and his arms in the other. It was ridiculous but very sweet.
“He could take a belt of scotch with the best of them,” Mr. Rather continued. “He could smoke a cigar with the best of them. He could admire a well-turned ankle on a bombshell with the best of them—as you would expect a world-traveled correspondent. He loved to tell jokes. And he loved to hear jokes. Walter did have a terrific sense of humor.”