During my years at CBS News, I had the privilege of working with some of the most celebrated television correspondents in the annals of broadcast journalism. With three of them — Dan Rather, Mike Wallace and Bob Schieffer — I co-authored books that became best-sellers.
But they were just part of the story. I also wrote for news programs anchored by other luminaries, such as Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, Charles Collingwood and Roger Mudd.
That’s quite an honor roll and it helps to explain why, in more recent years, some historians have nostalgically anointed that era — mainly the 1960s and 1970s — the Golden Age of TV journalism.
As for the honor roll, I pretty much admired all the correspondents I worked with at CBS, but my personal favorite, and the one whose friendship I treasured the most, was Harry Reasoner.
I’m choosing to write about him this week because the forceful presence of Christmas cheer invariably guides me toward warm memories of dear friends who are no longer with us.
The gods of media history have not been kind to Reasoner. I suspect that most of you youngsters out there — for this purpose, anyone under 60 — have, at best, only a dim memory of the man and his work. But take it from me that when I was drawn into the CBS orbit in 1969, Reasoner was a very big deal.
First of all, he had the distinction of anchoring his own signature program, the “CBS Sunday News.” And that was the least of it.
Secondly, although it’s largely been forgotten, when the legendary broadcast “60 Minutes” was created in 1968, it was conceived with Reasoner in mind. He was designated to be the sole host of that prime-time showcase. It’s true that by the time that iconic stopwatch began ticking its way into our homes, Harry had a co-host, Mike Wallace. But he was something of an afterthought. Wallace was not tossed into the mix until very late in the planning stage.
Finally, there was the flagship broadcast, “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” On those occasions when Cronkite was out of the office or on a special assignment or vacation, Reasoner invariably would be called on to take over Cronkite’s anchor duties.
That was appropriate because by the late 1960s, Reasoner was firmly ensconced just behind Cronkite in the competitive hierarchy of the network’s correspondents. In fact, a frequently-heard boast around the shop in those days was that in Harry Reasoner, CBS News had a number-two man who could easily have been number one at any other network.
Formal confirmation of that came in the fall of 1970 when, in a dramatic move that stunned his CBS colleagues, Reasoner accepted an offer from ABC to co-anchor its evening news show with Howard K. Smith.
When a media reporter asked him why he made the jump to ABC, Harry responded with a typically wry explanation: “I took this job because Walter Cronkite was showing no inclination toward stepping in front of a speeding truck.”
Writing for Reasoner was both a joy and a challenge. A joy because Harry himself was a gifted writer who was admired throughout the industry for his inventive style. He had a heightened appreciation of well-turned phrases and was quick to praise what he liked to call “grace notes.”
The challenge came with the effort to measure up to his standards. If writers who worked with Reasoner lapsed into sloppy syntax that abused the mother tongue, he would take them to task in his genial way. He was especially scornful of journalistic clichés.
I remember his reaction to an item that had been written by one of my colleagues about some international crisis.
“Well,” Harry said in a mildly sardonic tone, “I see those ‘dire straits’ of yours have moved again. The other day you had them in Vietnam near the Mekong Delta and now they’re back in the Middle East.”
It was also around this time that I heard about one of Reasoner’s more elaborate conceits. A few years earlier, he and his favorite editor had put together an All-Star football team composed of hackneyed phrases. I asked him about it one day over lunch.
At first he dismissed the question, but when I pressed him for details, he gleefully rattled off a few names and the positions they played. Here are some of those worthies:
The team’s best pass receiver, who had a special knack for leaping, acrobatic catches in clutch situations, was a Sherpa tribesman named “Mounting Tension.” The quarterback, renowned for the precision and accuracy of his passes, was a morally upright Native American named “Straight Arrow.”
On defense, the team’s top pass-rusher was a Scandinavian tackle named “Bodes Ill,” and its most aggressive linebacker was the son of immigrants from Bulgaria whose name was “Stinging Rebuke.” And patrolling the secondary to ward off hostile intruders was a patrician chap from New England, the geographically-challenged “Dire Straits.”
By the time Reasoner defected to ABC, we had become friends. Although I never wrote for him again, our friendship deepened over the years and endured until he died in 1991.
There’s much more I’d like to say about Harry, whose dry wit and convivial personality set him apart from most of his journalistic brethren, and so in all likelihood, I’ll bring him back for an encore in some future column. I also have stories to tell about other former colleagues, including the gents I mentioned at the start of this piece.
Since my long association with CBS was the defining experience of my professional life, I have no doubt that I’ll revisit those years from time to time in the months to come.
But I very much wanted this first reminiscence to be about what Shakespeare called — though in a much different context — “a little touch of Harry in the night.”