Thursday, January 28, 2021

Walter Cronkite, and the death of Lyndon Johnson

The following video is from a telecast of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  It took place on January 22, 1973, 48 years and one week ago.  

I will note that I was watching the newscast that evening, in our family kitchen in suburban Boston. What took place, in the 1973 broadcast, was, I remember, startling and dramatic to see (it remains so, at least for me, when viewed today).  It was dramatic not solely because of what was learned--that former President Lyndon Johnson had died in Texas, at age 64--but because of how the news was transmitted.

As the video, below, begins--in mid-newscast--Mr. Cronkite is seen at his desk in the CBS studio.  I read some time ago--I do not remember this, from watching the telecast in 1973--that a filmed report had been airing, yet the report was interrupted. When Mr. Cronkite appears on the screen, however, he initially does not speak--and for a moment, indeed, is not looking in the direction of the camera.  Instead, he is on the telephone.  He then looks at the camera, and holds up a finger, as if to say, to his viewers:  hold on, I'll be with you shortly.

It was gripping--this unexpected silence, and this odd (and for a moment, mysterious) interruption. One would learn, seconds later, about Johnson's death, and that Cronkite was speaking with one of the former president's aides--whose voice, one notes, was not heard during the phone call.  

The video becomes, in essence, a brief portrait of a journalist at work.  Mr. Cronkite describes that which he has learned, during the telephone call.  He asks follow-up questions, on the phone, and there is then further silence--silence which feels markedly unusual, in the context of a news broadcast--as he takes in additional details about Mr. Johnson's passing.

Here is the CBS News video of Mr. Cronkite, from 1973:

Let me also note the following:  while most people, I suspect, will not recall the specific date of Lyndon Johnson's death, I am sure there are many, today, who remember January 22, 1973 for a far different reason. Another event--quite dramatic--occurred earlier in the day, and reporting about it took place at the beginning of Mr. Cronkite's newscast that evening, before he learned of Mr. Johnson's death. That same day, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark 7-2 decision, in the case of Roe versus Wade.