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Walter Cronkite wouldn't give me his Watergate Emmy

July 18, 2009 | 10:55 am

Walter Cronkite won so many Emmys that he didn't know how many statuettes he had. We're talking mostly about the news and documentary Emmys, which are bestowed separately from the prime-time and daytime equivalents. There are dozens of categories and often when one program or news segment wins, lots of people get trophies. Throughout his long, impressive career, the late, great Cronkite was hailed so often by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in New York (and, before that, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in L.A.) that it's easy to see how he lost count.

Walter Cronkite

The last time I visited with him was about seven years ago when we dished TV's top award in his Manhattan office that looked like an Emmy museum. On the bookcases around us there were many winged Golden Girls and, on the coffee table before us, one quite special.

"I have some more at home," he said, "and probably in storage. Frankly, I don't know. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant. As you know, they give out lots of Emmys. Do you happen to know how many I won?"

"No," I said.

"Or do you know who's won the most?"

"No, sorry," I said. "NATAS has never computerized its awards database even though lots of people like me gripe about it. Years ago I tried to keep score, went through their records, started adding up wins, but the numbers were disputed. One day I said to Dan Rather, 'It's great that you have this or that number of Emmys.' I can't remember the exact number I used. But he got upset and shot back, 'That's not true. I have such and such!' So I just gave up trying to count."

"Do you think Dan has more than me?" Cronkite asked, with a devilish wink.

The question was a stickler. Rather was Cronkite's chief rival – unwittingly. Rather replaced Cronkite as anchor of "CBS Evening News" in 1981 when Cronkite freely gave up the post, a decision he regretted later, and furiously so. Even 20 years afterward, as I sat chitchatting with him in his office, Cronkite grumbled a few references to the biggest mistake of his career.

"I'm not exactly sure if Dan has more than you," I replied, "but I suspect you have more if we include the ones you won at the prime-time Emmys plus all of the honorary Emmy statuettes you have too."

I giggled, but stifled it. "Why are you laughing?" he asked.

"I suddenly remembered all of the Emmys you didn't win at the prime-times at first and the huge flapdoodle that caused – almost killing off the TV academy and the Emmy," I said. "Well, actually, it did kill off both for a while, as you know, but then they got rescued by Rod Serling. You're the reason the Emmy looks like it does today, you know – and I think that's something to be proud of."

For the next hour or so, Cronkite and I took head trips back through Emmy history, reliving all of the hubbub he caused. Even though Cronkite was "the most trusted man in America" and former president of the TV academy (1959-60), he kept losing the news Emmy to NBC stars Chet Huntley and David Brinkley during the early 1960s. The reason was obvious. Emmy winners were determined by a popular vote and the peacock web was the most popular TV network. But the Emmy result was so unpopular with CBS News Chief Fred Friendly that he finally got fed up, became most unfriendly and screamed, "Boycott!"

Not only did CBS pull out of the Emmys over the Cronkite snubs, but Friendly recruited ABC to follow, which was easy to do since the alphabet web was furious about seldom winning any Emmys at all thanks to its third-rank Nielsen status.

Suddenly jilted by two of the three TV networks, the Emmys and the TV academy were dead. That's when the father of bizarre TV, Serling ("Twilight Zone"), stepped up to rescue them both, agreed to take over the job as academy president when no one else wanted it and instituted major reforms. "It's time we became an art form!" Serling crowed.

The first thing Serling did was toss out the popular vote to determine winners. From now on, he decreed, TV academy members could only vote for Emmy winners if they view sample video of all contenders in the categories they're judging. That change has resulted in many heroic Emmy victories through the years, often saving low-rated sleepers that went on to become TV classics.

"You are indirectly responsible for saving 'Cheers,' 'Hill Street Blues,' 'Cagney & Lacey' and 'All in the Family,' " I told Cronkite, who was startled at the news. Oh, yeah, the rule changes also resulted in Cronkite winning prime-time Emmys over Huntley and Brinkley thereafter.

But, strangely, Cronkite wasn't all that thrilled about receiving those Emmys because he had a problem with the whole idea of the TV academy bestowing awards. When I wrote the first edition of my book "The Emmys" in the early 1990s, I interviewed Cronkite for the first time about his Emmy past, including his tenure as president of the original TV academy (before it split in 1977 into the two warring organizations that exist today on opposite coasts).

Cronkite said that he wished the academy would harken back to its original model of the French Academy – "of a bunch of wise men and women, who sat in judgment of their peers. It was a matter of great argument in the early days of the academy. I spoke up vociferously for this and I was shouted down by the huge majority -- the huge majority -- who were principally motivated with the idea of giving awards each year and putting on a good show. But I have not changed my position in the years since I was president, and I didn't last very long in the higher echelon of the academy affairs because of my views. I've always thought the academy should be a real academy and should be interested in the furtherance of the arts and sciences of television. In that regard, the awarding of prizes for performance should be very definitely limited to outstanding contributions and should not perhaps even be given on a regular basis."

Among Cronkite's many Emmy victories were statuettes for coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, the ill-starred Apollo 13 mission and the follow-up Apollo 14 lift-off. He also won Emmys for his 1970 series, "Can the World Be Saved?" and for covering the resignation of U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973.

But the Emmy he valued most was for his coverage of Watergate.

"That's the big doozy," I reminded him as we admired the statuette on the coffee table before us in the office. We then posed together for a photo with it.

"Can I have it?" I asked him.

"What?" he gasped.

"I'm curating a museum exhibition of historic showbiz awards," I said, "and I'd like to include this on display. Just for a while. Probably around three or four months, then ship it back to you. I'll take good care of it."

Cronkite smiled, saying, "Well, I'm very flattered. I think that can be arranged, but I just have to check on something first. Call me tomorrow and we'll follow up, OK?"

The next day I telephoned him, feeling confident that he'd give me the official "Yes" plus instructions on how to pick up the trophy for the exhibit. But when he answered the phone, he seemed a bit downcast and sad.

"I'm sorry, Tom," he said, "but I can't give you the Watergate Emmy."

"Why not?"

"Um, well, something came up," he said, struggling for words. "I'm not sure I can go into it … there's a complication … I just can't do it. I'd like to, but I don't think I can."

"OK," I said. "That's fine. Just thought I'd ask. If I were you, I'd hold onto it too!  Well, anyway, back to yesterday. I want to thank you for inviting me over. I sure enjoyed our powwow."

"Me too," he said, then rambled a bit. I tried to interject a graceful way for us both to exit the phone, but he resisted, didn't want to hang up.

"I've got something to tell you," he added. "It's not my fault. I want to give you the Emmy, I really do, but I'm not allowed. I can't."

Obviously, he was itching to confess something. I let him ramble on.

"Betsy said 'no'!" he finally blurted out.

"Well, that settles that!" I said. "No need to say more!"

In his autobiography, Cronkite called Betsy his most "precious" asset and gave her the credit for their happy marriage lasting more than 60 years. Up until her death in 2005, Cronkite was remarkably cogent and agile for his advanced age, but quickly deteriorated after he lost her. When he died Friday at age 92 after a long illness, he had been battling dementia for a few years.

Photo: Tom O'Neil

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