President Barack Obama called Cronkite "a voice of certainty in a world that was growing more and more uncertain," capping a gathering of old friends and colleagues Wednesday at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. Cronkite, who defined television journalism during his reign at CBS News, died July 17 at age 92.
It was more mirthful than mournful. Celebrants spoke not only of Cronkite's dedication to the news and instinctive understanding of his role in society, but also of his love of sailing and family and unexpected relationships - like becoming good friends with drummer Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.
Another drinking buddy and sailing partner was singer Jimmy Buffett, who performed "Son of a Son of a Sailor" at the memorial. Buffett shared a memory of seeking some advice for a mutual friend, the late "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley. After a sail, "the sun was down, the rum was out, and I said, 'Walter, Ed called me and he's thinking about wearing an earring on '60 Minutes."'
Buffett said Cronkite responded: "It doesn't matter if he wears an earring, as long as it's a good story." Then Cronkite added impishly: "If I was going to wear an earring on '60 Minutes,' I'd wear one of those big, long, dangly ones."
Cronkite anchored "The CBS Evening News" from 1962 until 1981, a period that included the Vietnam War, the space race, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and Watergate.
During his decades at CBS, Cronkite came to be known as "the most trusted man in America."
Stories were passed to illustrate how Cronkite was "a true gent," as CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves said. CBS News President Sean McManus said how much it meant to his father, the late ABC Sports anchor Jim McKay, to get a telegram from Cronkite congratulating him for his work covering the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972.
Tom Brokaw, proud for scoring an interview with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, said his phone rang when the interview was done and he picked it up to hear Cronkite say, "That was magnificent!" Brokaw, however, didn't instantly recognize the voice and made the mistake of asking, "Who is this?"
"Who is this?" Cronkite roared. "It's Walter Cronkite, for God's sake. How soon they forget."
Former President Bill Clinton confessed that his mother initially preferred NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley to Cronkite, before switching over after the CBS coverage of President Kennedy's assassination. Clinton said Cronkite was one of the most interesting men he had met.
The former CBS anchor helped Clinton at a key moment. When the former president, his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea left Washington for a vacation shortly after he had confessed to his wife about the affair with Monica Lewinsky, Cronkite invited them to go sailing on Martha's Vineyard.
Cronkite said that "somebody might take a picture of us, but so what," Clinton recalled.
"At the time, I could have done with a picture with Walter Cronkite," he said.
"That wasn't something he had to do," Clinton said. "He was 81 years old. He was a good man."
Obama, who sat next to Clinton for a service that stretched nearly two hours before he spoke, confessed to not knowing Cronkite. But he said Cronkite's "dogged pursuit of the truth" could be a model for journalists today.
Cronkite's longtime friend Andy Rooney also recalled how Cronkite made it a point to be seen in public with him at a time Rooney had been suspended from CBS for saying something inappropriate. An emotional Rooney could barely speak at Cronkite's funeral on July 23. He attended Wednesday's service, but prepared a video essay.
He poked fun at his friend's loss of hearing as he aged. One time when Cronkite was out, an odd man approached him and asked if Cronkite knew someone. Not well, Cronkite replied, but he'd met him a few times. Out of earshot, Cronkite's wife Betsy told Rooney that the man had asked if Cronkite knew Jesus Christ.
Much of the broadcast news business paused to remember Cronkite. ABC's soon-to-retire Charles Gibson walked in with successor Diane Sawyer. Current top CBS anchor Katie Couric spoke, as did Veteran CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer, and NBC anchor Brian Williams was in the audience.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong, spoke about Cronkite's love of the space program. While the Apollo 11 astronauts were in quarantine after their moon flight, they watched tapes of Cronkite covering their landing on the moon.
Cronkite friend Nick Clooney, father of actor George Clooney, recalled jovial get-togethers, cleaning out a few bars. Their last time together was in March. Clooney wondered if Cronkite would be able to make it, but they had a great time. Cronkite sat in a restaurant with his back to other patrons, many of whom recognized him as he walked out. They all stood as he went by.
"They didn't applaud," Clooney said. "They just stood up, because that's what you do when a gentleman is leaving the room."