Monday, July 20, 2009
Remembering Uncle Walter
When Dan Rather retired as anchor of "The CBS Evening News" in 2005, my immediate reaction was "You mean we could have had Uncle Walter all this time?"
In a classic case of fixing something that ain't broke, Walter Cronkite was pushed into premature retirement in 1981. Rather was a hot commodity at the time, and the suits at CBS were afraid he'd jump to NBC or ABC. So they gave Uncle Walter the heave-ho to make room for the new guy.
Big mistake. Under Rather, the CBS Evening News quickly slipped to third place in the ratings and has remained there ever since.
Much has been written about how Uncle Walter was the national campfire around which we all gathered every night, and it's true. But my fondest memories go back to the early '50s, before he took over the anchor desk.
He was the star of my favorite TV show, "You Are There." Each program was a half-hour playlet about a historical event, such as the death of Socrates (with Paul Newman as Plato!) or the assassination of Julius Caesar (with E.G. Marshall as Caesar).
Cronkite and his staff of young reporters - including Mike Wallace, Ned Calmer, Winston Burdette and Don Hollenbeck - would pretend to cover the event as a breaking news story. I can hear him now: "Let's go to Mike Wallace, who is with Brutus and Cassius."
He ended each program with the same words: "What sort of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. And YOU WERE THERE."
Indeed we were. "You Are There" kicked off my lifetime love of history because it depicted history as something that was always in the process of unfolding, not something that was pre-ordained.
The biggest mistake we make about history is to view it as an inevitable march toward the present, as if it was destined to happen that way all along.
But the truth is that the people who lived during these momentous events had no idea how it would turn out. If things had gone just a little differently, the South might have won the Civil War, or Hitler might have won World War II.
In short, the past was just like the present: full of uncertainty about the future. That's what makes history so exciting. And "You Are There" caught that.
And I have another reason for loving the show. I was only seven when it first went on the air, and, like many kids in the '50s, I had a distant relationship with my father.
Watching "You Are There" was the only thing we did together. I remember the time we were watching the episode about the Trojan Horse, and he kept asking me, "Can you figure out where the Greeks are?"
Finally, about 20 minutes into the show, it hit me.
"They're in the horse! They're in the horse!" I shouted.
"You're right!" he said with a big smile on his face. He was so proud of me, and I was so proud of myself.
It wasn't Kevin Costner playing catch with his dad at the end of "Field of Dreams," but it was the next best thing.
And that's the way it was.