The tributes will come pouring in today for Walter Cronkite, a more complicated man than you might imagine.

While Cronkite was certainly the gold standard for news and journalism, there were many quirky facets to him.

For one thing, few people know that he and his late wife Betsy were Grateful Dead fans. In particular, they were very friendly with the group’s Mickey Hart. What a long strange trip that must have been!

Walter was also deliciously funny. He loved to pull people’s legs. At a screening a couple of years ago, he pretended not to know Frank Gifford. When his friend, Joanna Simon, said, “Frank is a retired football player” as if to remind Cronkite, the newsman deadpanned, “How’s that going for you?” Gifford turned white.

One thing that wasn’t so amusing: how CBS News treated Cronkite after he left the anchor chair. Dan Rather refused to let him appear again on the CBS Evening News or even 60 Minutes. Until Rather lost his job and was succeeded by Katie Couric, Cronkite was persona non grata at CBS.’He formed his own production company, made many terrific documentaries, and often turned up on PBS or CNN.

It was a missed opportunity. When Couric took over, Cronkite came back to introduce her on opening night. The network paid him to use his voiceover after that on a nightly basis.

Betsy Cronkite, Walter’s beloved wife of 65 years, died in 2005 at age 89. By chance he started spending time with Joanna Simon, whose husband had recently also passed away. They lived in the same building. There was talk that the pair might marry. Simon was more than 20 years Cronkite’s junior, but they much in common–like Martha’s Vineyard and mutual friends. I am told that Cronkite’s family objected, which was too bad. I think Joanna Simon was the reason Walter made it these last four years.

Cronkite’s passing is pretty much the end of what passed for real television journalism. There are a few people drifting around out there, like Roger Mudd and Garrick Utley, Sander Vanocur, Mike Wallace and Morley Safer, old-timers who came up in the Murrow-Cronkite tradition. But for the most part now, it’s over. What passes for “journalism” now on cable but is really just loud-mouthed opinion is so far far from that tradition. Cronkite’s ability’and the whole school of reporters like him’to impart the news factually and dispassionately would seem quaint now by comparison. And it’s so very missed and needed.

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