Too Much

The subject of death is arising far too often in this blog. This time it involves people whose full impact on society will probably not be known for years. While I admired them both, my own reaction to each of their deaths was vastly different. The announcement Friday that Walter Cronkite had passed came as no surprise. I had some little regret, but he had lived a long and full life and had gracefully exited the stage some time ago. It did bring back recollections of milestones in my young life, but in a good way.

The death of Frank McCourt, on the other hand, was needless and far too soon and I’m angry that he had to die the way he did.

The Most Trusted Man in America

As soon as CBS news announced the passing of “Uncle Walter,” it played the clip of his announcement that JFK had died. I cried all over again. Cronkite, far more than anyone else, influenced me to become a journalist. And he was among the best, long before the position of TV news anchor was first invented and then exalted. Edward R. Murrow hired Cronkite because he  could keep his facts straight and write clear declarative sentences. He was the managing editor for the news broadcasts. That’s the person who has final say in content, so he was reading what he wrote. He was not just another coiffed and heavily made up robot reading cue cards or whatever.

Only occasionally did he inject his views into his reporting, and when he did they were conclusions based on careful observations and thoughtful analysis. He did it twice in 1968, first when he said, “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” He basically told the American people that they were being lied to about the success of the war. The result of this observation is now famous. President Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” It’s a shame that the most trusted man in America had retired before W. and Cheney invaded Iraq. We have no one with any credibility now to call out our leaders when they overstep their bounds.

The second time Cronkite’s observations intruded in 1968, he watched Dan Rather get punched in the stomach by a security guard at the Democratic National Convention. Cronkite’s reaction: “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.”

Cronkite occasionally let his objectivity fall completely apart, most spectacularly over anything involving NASA and space flight. He became like a giddy little kid watching the rides at an amusement park and waiting for a chance to hop on board. After the moon walk, all he could say was, “Oh, boy!” Because of that unbridled enthusiasm, I always expected that he would be among the first civilians in space, but I guess he got too old.

One incident that I don’t think I knew about at the time was his meeting with the pompous, ignorant anti-Cronkite, Ted Baxter, on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The most trusted man in America could do comedy, too.

We’ll never see his like again.

Frank McCourt

News of McCourt’s impending death from  melanoma came across last week, and all I could think was, “Oh, my God, what a waste!” He had pretty clearly gotten his exposure in the years before the wide use of sun screens; nevertheless it seemed a terrible burden that such a talented man should lose his life to a disease that is easy to prevent and easy to cure in its early stages.

I’ll never forget sitting on a sunny beach (yeah, without sun screen) on the north side of Oahu in the spring of 1999 reading Angela’s Ashes. Every few minutes I stopped to savor the contrast between McCourt’s life and the clear blue sky, white sand, balmy breeze and 80 degree temps. Because of his brilliance, I could feel his poor bare feet as he and his brothers and sisters shivered through the icy puddles in the damp of Ireland. That’s the second time I’ve had a study in contrasts. Some years before I had read The Feminine Mystique while on a trip to Mexico. Betty Friedan just made me furious at the high-handed chauvinism of the Mexican men. It took me a couple of weeks to recover from that vacation!

McCourt did a great service to the world in writing such a powerful and very intimate account of his early life. He was properly acknowledged for it with a Pulitzer. Unfortunately Angela’s Ashes became the motivator for a whole genre which has now slithered into the half-truth sliminess of James Frey and his ilk. In this instance, the best came first.

McCourt went on to publish two more memoirs, ’Tis and Teacher Man. They are equally well written but lack the punch of the first because he had achieved at least a modicum of physical comfort. Life as a New York City schoolteacher has its exciting moments but can’t match the struggle to survive the streets of Limerick. My favorite scene from the later works is the incident where he eats a sandwich that one of his students has thrown on the floor. (Memories of poverty and starvation die hard.)

Another like McCourt won’t come along any time soon, either.

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