Recently, the Washington Post carried a column about the passing of who is arguably the most famous TV newsman in history, Walter Cronkite. This iconic figure defined TV news for a generation, and his trademark signoff, “…and that’s the way it is” became synonymous with trust. People trusted this humble dentist’s son from the heart of America so much, that in tumultuous 1972, he was named the “most trusted man in America” by a prestigious polling organization.
What was it about this man that made him – in the eyes of the public, at least – so trustworthy? I was never fortunate enough to know him personally, so I can’t vouch for his character; but plenty of others did and can. Many disagreed with his politics, but you have to respect his thoughtful consideration of the issues. Although the true state of any man’s heart is known only to God, there are a few signs along the way of his life. Perhaps we can learn a few things about trust from his example.
First, he was consistent. This is evidenced by his lifelong commitment to his wife, Betsy. He stayed by her side for 65 years, until her death in 2005. If there ever was a litmus test of a man’s character, it’s his commitment to his mate. His consistency apparently permeated all areas of his public life. Consistency is a characteristic of relationships that include trust.
Second, he was there. Call it doing his job or whatever, but there wasn’t a single major news story during his 31-year tenure at CBS News that America didn’t hear his familiar voice. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Watergate. Nearly losing his composure, he broke the news about the assassination of President Kennedy. At an uncharacteristic (but understandable) loss for words, he put a human face on the story when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Being accessible helps nurture trust by reassuring others.
Third, he was accessible. How many times have you had trust be broken by someone who either isn’t there at all, or communicates in circles? Cronkite didn’t have that problem. Part of it was technical. It’s been reported that he trained himself to speak at a maximum of 124 words per minute, to make himself more understandable. The average person speaks at about 165 words per minute, with fast speakers humming along at 200 words per minute! But his accessibility transcended the technical; he made himself available to students and others. Ultimately, the Journalism school at Arizona State University was renamed in his honor.
Finally, he was authentic. Cronkite was (by most accounts), pretty much the same person in private as he was in public. People believed him at a time when trust in public figures was being shattered all around. In the caustic environment of the cold war, Watergate and Vietnam, he was believable because people thought they could relate to him. It doesn’t mean that he was perfect, or that people even thought he was. Like any of us, he made mistakes, he probably had skeletons in his closet – he was admittedly human. Perhaps that’s the thing that made him the most trustworthy.
History has yet to issue its verdict on the life and career of Walter Cronkite. It’s dangerous to emulate mere mortals. But if we are to establish trust, we need to find out what that means. What makes you trustworthy? Who are the people you trust, and why? We will continue to explore just what that means. Meanwhile, perhaps we can learn a few things from a life well-lived.
(c) 2010 by William D. Moak