[Publisher’s Note ]My Introduction to Cronkite’s Kindliness | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher’s Note]

My Introduction to Cronkite’s Kindliness

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the August 5, 2009 Providence Journal.

When Walter Cronkite’s son, Chip, took the lectern of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan last month to remember his father, he thanked him for various kindnesses.

But something he said about his father as a working journalist, something that had nothing to do with their personal relationship, stayed with me. It brought back memories not only of my own late father but also of another Cronkite kindness that wasn’t revealed to the thousand or so mourners who filled the church on July 23. What’s more, it reminded me why I went into journalism in the first place.

Chip recalled that Walter would modestly describe himself as “just a reporter” who “ended up reporting bigger and bigger stories.” But— and this is what struck me— “he was fast, too. I liked watching him swivel around and rewrite stories during commercial breaks.”

I’ll bet he was fast. Only someone who has worked on a wire service can appreciate just how fast a writer Cronkite had to be to cover World War II. The sheer volume of words— and the speed with which they had to be dictated or typed— was astonishing. At St. Bart’s, Sandy Socolow, Cronkite’s last executive producer, evoked the deceptively simple creed of the wire-service trade: “Get it first, but get it right.” It’s a lot harder than it sounds, and it took a very special talent to do it well under the stress of war.

However, according to my father, Roderick, there was someone even faster than Cronkite at United Press, a mutual friend named Jim McGlincy, who also covered the war and was Cronkite’s roommate when they were based in England. If Cronkite epitomized restraint, sobriety and good judgment throughout his distinguished career, McGlincy was the opposite— rash, bad-tempered and alcoholic. In his memoir, army P.R. man Barney Oldfield related a not untypical Mc-Glincy story after the Allies retook Cherbourg from the Germans, in late June 1944:

“In the press camp, there was a prophetic incident when U.P.’s James McGlincy, armed with a souvenir German pistol and fortified with Calvados, came into the sleeping tent one night, waving the gun and looking for ‘the enemy.’ Rightly assuming the gun to be loaded, his ‘friends’ promptly rolled out of their sacks and disappeared to safer territory until one of their number disarmed him.”

Prophetic, indeed, since McGlincy’s drinking only got worse (he would later fire a pistol at close quarters in a Maastricht hotel). McGlincy’s “enemy” was himself. The shooting incident got him sent back to Paris, but a newsman of McGlincy’s quality couldn’t be kept down, either by U.S. Army discipline or self-destructive behavior. Not long after the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945, McGlincy went to the scene and filed a searing dispatch, which I’ll quote in part:

“Driving into Hiroshima we saw a buzzard sitting on a tree. Nobody but a buzzard would want to pick over this city— undoubtedly the most destroyed city per square mile of all those that have been bombed and shelled in six years of bloody war in Europe and the Pacific…. One bomb— that is the key to the most staggering single event of this war. You can ride through Hiroshima and look at it again and again and all the time you say to yourself, ‘One bomb did all this.’… From that one bomb people are still dying…. According to Japanese doctors, their hair falls out, their gums bleed and they have stomach and kidney trouble…. They get weaker and weaker and finally they die…. In this city you can smell the stench of death as it used to stink from the bodies of dead Germans who were left to bloat in the summer sun in Normandy. In this city you can see all the ruined cities of the world put together and spread out. In this city you can see in the eyes of the few Japanese picking through the ruins all the hate it is possible for a human to muster.”

I don’t know how many newspapers — if any — printed this U.P. report. Self-censorship on Hiroshima was widespread in the American press until John Hersey wrote about it in The New Yorker a year after the bomb dropped. But such a story shows that McGlincy had a lot more to him than bluster and orneriness. And it’s the kind of journalism I always wanted to do.

McGlincy stayed on for a few more years at UP, which is where he met my father after the war, in Paris. Although my dad had been rejected for the draft because of a childhood injury, he volunteered for the American Field Service and drove an ambulance through the bitter winter fighting of 1944–45 in the Vosges mountains. During the campaign he caught pneumonia, endured lots of shelling, and lifted numberless corpses and wounded soldiers.

But like Cronkite, my father didn’t come out of World War II damaged the way McGlincy did. For my dad, the post-war United Press was mostly fun. He liked to tell me how Cronkite, who was his boss’s boss and based in Brussels, once visited the Paris bureau on the Rue des Italiens and tried to get him “to take the job more seriously.” To demonstrate, Cronkite sat down at a typewriter, said, “Here’s how you should do it, Rod,” and then banged out a snappy lead sentence.

McGlincy, meanwhile, went on to a checkered career in newspapers, mainly in New York, where he nevertheless shared a George Polk award in 1954 for the Daily News. The demons stayed with him, though, and when he found himself down and out in the late 1970s, his old friend Cronkite came to the rescue and gave him a job at CBS News. Sandy Socolow told me that McGlincy in his 60s was a “sad sack” and a “wreck,” although his drinking days were over. There wasn’t much left of the newsman either. “He was a writer, but he did precious little,” said Socolow. “We were carrying him.”

But the newly “meek and mild” McGlincy still had a functioning intellect, and it so happened he was a devoted subscriber to Harper’s Magazine when my father and I organized the foundation-funded rescue of the publication, in July 1980. After Cronkite announced the resurrection of Harper’s on The CBS Evening News, McGlincy reconnected with my father, who had become a successful businessman. One of them had the idea to invite Cronkite to come on the board of the newly created Harper’s Magazine Foundation, where Walter served from 1982 until his retirement, last December. Just two years ago, he delivered a funny, impromptu speech at a Harper’s screening of Ken Burns’s documentary The War that elicited a standing ovation.

I wasn’t a close friend of Cronkite, but we had good, instructive conversations over the years, including one in 1988 at McGlincy’s memorial service at the United Nations Chapel. I’m proud I was asked to speak along with Walter, who I assume paid for the service, since it was probably beyond the means of Jim’s son and ex-wife.

They say that in his heyday Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. His generosity and loyalty to Jim McGlincy, as well as to my father and me, makes me think he was a good deal more than just trustworthy. I’ll miss him.

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