In 1980, it was announced that Walter Cronkite would leave CBS News. There were two leading candidates. Roger Mudd, a brilliant correspondent who had ended Teddy Kennedy’s presidential hopes with a devastating interview and who had anchored The Selling of the Pentagon. Or Dan Rather, who had covered Vietnam over a long period and done a fine job during the assassination of President Kennedy.
At the time we had a beach house on Fire Island. Eric Sevareid and his new wife were one wooden walk away from us. Of all the correspondents with whom I worked, he was the closest and the wisest. He had not only reported on three wars, he had been under consistent enemy fire. In World War II, he was shot down in Burma and although he had not been wounded, he had been under dangerous conditions for days. Neither he nor I ever talked about it, but each knew the other had faced death. He read The Friend, admired the style and gave the book to his sons. I was flattered. My young son was pleased when Eric presented him with two stone Indian arrowheads he had found in Minnesota. Year before, when he was courting a new wife, he brought her to Paris for Tuulikki’s (my wife) tacit approval.
On the porch facing the sea, Eric asked me which correspondent I preferred.
“If Cronkite is going, that’s enough for me. They’re both good.”
“I want Rather.”
I knew he did. He had persuaded Dan to go to night school to shore up his education, and he had been instrumental in sending the young man to London as Chief Correspondent. England took some of the west Texas parochial out of him, and it introduced him to Saville Row suits.
“Dan’s your protégée. “
Eric said, “He’s too much like Murrow. He likes the trench coat. He’s a war lover.”
“But he’s your man?”
“Mudd would be safer. He’s less eccentric. But there’s a problem. For family reasons Roger never went to Vietnam. I think a war makes the difference.” He added, “I have an appointment with Paley. He wants to know which one to pick.”
Eric saw the head of CBS and Rather got Cronkite’s job.
Yet there was another story. The sales research department made tapes of both correspondents and showed them to test audiences for months. The head of sales reportedly said that Dan Rather scored higher, specifically “a million dollars or more in yearly billings than Roger Mudd.”
What troubled me was that company policy made all jobs mortal. That meant Dick Salant, president of CBS News, would have to retire at the mandatory age of 65. The Golden Age of news was there because of him. Salant understood the economics of running a commercial network, but he designed that firewall between news and entertainment. For example, when 60 Minutes began, it limped now and then towards celebrity television. At the beginning, ratings were low and reviews were bad. Dick asked me to share the executive producer job with Don Hewitt. I told him the job couldn’t be shared.
Equally troubling was that Dick’s successor, Bill Leonard, had only a year to oversee the transition from Cronkite to Rather. He was forced out by mandatory retirement.
After Leonard left, the new presidents came and went. They were respectful, but I was overage in grade. They didn’t try to get rid of me; they just paid little attention and cut back my staff. I noted the projects they approved were all cheap ones—stock footage mostly, and documentaries that did not require foreign travel.
The change came slowly.
Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite, portraitsbybillray.com