This is a clip of TV history I've never before seen, though I was there, and I thank my friend Shane Harris for unearthing and sending my way. It is Walter Cronkite reporting the death of President Lyndon B. Johnson "live" on the air. A writer, I sat off camera to his left. Across from me was the editor, John Merriman. On Cronkite's right were the two other writers, Raybun Matthews and Charles L. West.
We were not many minutes into the show - maybe into the first commercial break - when the executive producer, Paul Greenberg, rushed out of his office, known as the "fishbowl," to tell Walter that Tom Johnson was on the phone and it was urgent, that LBJ had died. We came out of commercial and Walter took the call on the air. This clip underscores his professionalism and calm and journalistic grounding. Off camera, we scrambled, writing little bits of information that we slid to Walter below the shot. Very subtly, you can see him cooly referring to the little notes as we pass them to him -- from both directions.
At the end of the clip, as we go to commercial, you see me, ready to pull copy from the wire machines that lined one wall of the studio. They were the Reuters, Associated Press and United Press International wires. They were our lifeblood back in those days before computers, tweets, email, text messages and so forth. We kept them in these big boxes so that while we were on the air the tick-tick-tick of the machines would be muffled, but you can hear them. You can hear our electric typewriters, too.
This is just one of the most remarkable days in history but also in my professional life. I'd only joined the writing staff of The CBS Evening News in December of the year before. Cronkite hired me away from Time magazine, where I was a fledgling reporter. I was all of 22-years-old but a real hard-news Hannah about the business. This particular event, and the way Walter and the staff handled it, made me proud. We sprinted along until the end of the first 30-minute live 6:30 show, but while Walter talked we totally wrote a whole new show to do live at 7pm. We had all of five minutes to pull it together. The producers prepared clips and obit material. That night we did a network special.
It was an exciting night. This was 1973, and Watergate was in full flower, so our days were routinely exciting. Still, this moment stood out. Not to get all gushy, but I watch and listen to the clip and it reminds me what a great front row seat I've had to so much history. I'm reminded, too, of what journalism was like before it got adorned with silly frills or sidetracked into meaninglessness. I miss the urgency of breaking news and being the broadcast to beat and, especially, the high standards. The standards were remarkable, compared to what passes for standards now - not only in television, but in all so-called news media.
Because Shane mentioned it, here's a piece I wrote after Walter died: Remebering Old Iron Pants. The picture at the top is what we called the "bumper shot," which flashed on screen as went to commercial. I'm at my desk (Coca Cola and ash tray struck from the set).
PS-The clip is in black and white, but we broadcast in color.
LATER: Afer posting, I received this wonderful message from a former colleague, Carolyn Terry Dorsett, who was Walter's executive assistant: