Walter and Frank

July 21st, 2009

The worlds of journalism and literature lost two of the good ones over the weekend.

Walter Cronkite and Frank McCourt shared some of the same qualities: a sure sense of who they were, what they were about and what they wanted to accomplish. Walter came by his inner compass early and easily. He knew from his teen-aged years that journalism was for him and he pursued it steadily, in print, for a wire service, on radio and, at a time when it seemed like a risky venture with an uncertain future, in television. By the time he became the Most Trusted Man, he had a thorough grounding in news. Television brought out his inner ham, but he never lost his sense of integrity. He was as steady at the helm of CBS News as he was on his beloved sailboat.

I knew Walter mainly as a family friend. We sailed together on Martha’s Vineyard and I enjoyed listening as he and my father swapped stories over drinks in the evening. He was retired by the time I got to CBS News as a correspondent in 1985, but the News Division was still the House that Murrow built and the institution that Cronkite had guided so steadily.

He had stepped down from the anchor chair voluntarily two years before, mainly to make way for Dan Rather, but within a year he knew he had given up that perch too soon. He still had the energy and interest, and he was offended by the cold shoulder he got from CBS. But Walter was a classy guy above all, and he kept his second thoughts largely to himself. It was only in his later years that he publicly shared his dismay over the dismemberment of CBS News in the Tisch era and the general decline of television journalism.

Frank McCourt was famously a late bloomer, a writer who found his literary voice in his late 60’s after a full teaching career. But once he had written Angela’s Ashes, even before it was published, he knew he had discovered what he was meant to do. He told me that he had filled 40 small notebooks with recollections of his childhood and that he had to get the story out of his system. “I would have died howling,” he said, had he not set it down.

The memoir made him famous and wealthy. He never lost his amazement at that, or his sense of irony. “I’m an expert on everything now,” he told me with a laugh as he accepted an invitation to go to Ireland for a conference on the history of U.S.-Irish relations. “Didn’t you know?”

I profiled him for CBS Sunday Morning when Angela’s Ashes had just come out and before it was such a huge hit, tagging along with a camera crew when Frank and his brothers returned to Ireland for the first time together. There were some inner tensions and competition among the Brothers McCourt, Frank, Malachy, Michael and Alfie, but a shared sense of irreverent humor as well. They laughed at everything, even the stony graveyard outside Limerick where they had scattered their mother’s famous ashes and the former British Army barracks where they had played pranks as boys. It was a glorious trip.

I did another television interview with Frank a few years later when his second memoir, “T’is,” was published, this time for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The second volume never matched the commercial success of his first, but he was pleased, nonetheless. “You see?” he said, laughing, “I’m not a one-trick pony after all.”

We became friends in the years after that, sharing the occasional dinner with our wives in New York and Washington and a weekend at Notre Dame, where he saw his first big-time college football game. “That was grand,” he said, after the music of the marching band had died out (and USC had killed Notre Dame,)”a real extravaganza!”

Walter and Frank — I’ll miss them both.


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