When Old Iron Butt rules the world, his friend Neil Morgan will be right by his side.

I'm Morgan, he's Cronkite

Careful lest the public forget how very close they are, Morgan has chronicled his Master’s every move, thought, and desire. They have even sailed together, as Morgan ofttimes has reminded us.
  • Careful lest the public forget how very close they are, Morgan has chronicled his Master’s every move, thought, and desire. They have even sailed together, as Morgan ofttimes has reminded us.
  • Illustrations by John Workman

This past August, while San Diegans tanned and party delegates decided our nation's fate, a paper was delivered to 300 sweaty, sausage-chomping academics at the Second Polish-American Semiotics Colloquium held in Atlantic City. The paper, entitled “Buttocks of Iron, Thighs of Marble, Feet of Clay — Sign, System, and Function,” changed forever the way many Americans would think of San Diego. Read by Professor Jerzy Pupik of the University of Lubbock, Texas, the discourse elaborated the long and emotionally rich friendship between San Diego Tribune editor Neil Morgan and veteran newscaster Walter Leland Cronkite.

Citing the dozens of glowing accounts Morgan has obsessively penned over the past two decades about Cronkite, Professor Pupik stated, “To what do we awe these hundreds of column inches by Morgan on Cronkite? Sheer vanity? An obsession with TV stardom? Vulgar sycophancy? I would suggest it is none of this — it is epic narrative being reborn and its birthplace is San Diego!

Epic narrative? Reborn in San Diego? Such a large feather for such a small cap! The colloquium reeled in astonishment. The New York Times reported that 50 enraged literary critics rushed the stage in an attempt to stifle the professor. During the melee, Pupik himself was arrested for bludgeoning a bow-tied Yale undergraduate with a chipped beer stein. Long after the banquet hall was cleared by riot police, controversy continued to rage in the halls and elevators of the Just Step Inn. Copies of Pupik’s paper were Xeroxed and burned poolside. A rogue delegation of literature professors attempted to liberate Pupik from the Atlantic City jail. “Free Jerzy Pupik!” bumper stickers, fashioned from cocktail napkins and Scotch tape, were tossed into expressway traffic and scattered across acey-deucy tables in boardwalk casinos.

Needless to say, America's academic community, especially the sector concerned with literature, hasn’t been the same since. Not a single copy of Pupik's paper survived the Atlantic City riots. Pupik is said to be on an extended sabbatical in Lucerne, Switzerland, allegedly writing his memoirs. And while the literature departments at San Diego State and UCSD have been suspiciously silent about the incident, other institutions have not. A casual perusal of collegiate library stacks reveals the continuing international upheaval:

  • Aspekte der Kultursoziologie : Aufsatze zur Soziologie, Neil Morgan, Walter Leland Cronkite. und Geschichte der Rultur : zum 60. Geburtstag von Berlin, Reimer. 1988.
  • Neil Morgan: Signifying Animal — The grammar of language and experience after Atlantic City, edited by Irmengard Ripple and Gerald Fastcarr. Bloomington, Indiana University Press. 1988.
  • • NATO Advanced Study Institute on “Narrative and International Scholarship: What Hath Morgan Wrought?” Emergency Symposium, September 1988. Estoril, Portugal.

For those who toil outside the groves of academe, it may be difficult, in fact impossible, to understand the impact of Pupik’s paper upon the world of letters. Over the past few decades, literary criticism and the study of literature and language in general have become intensely technical disciplines. The competition for teaching positions is fierce; tenured salaries have become astronomical. With hundreds of academics pressured by vanity and department heads to publish, truly original ideas are scarce — the introduction of new and startling theory is commonly greeted with jealousy, suspicion, fear, and often, as was the case in Atlantic City, outright violence.

But what had Pupik said that so alarmed his colleagues? To answer that question, it would be best to examine the sources that he scrutinized and that, perhaps, influenced him — the many, many columns Tribune editor Neil Morgan has, throughout the years, written about his dear and very personal friend, Walter Lei and Cronkite.

Consider his column of February 9, 1979:

ROYALTY: The 300 people of the Baja fishing village of Abreojos, 430 miles southeast of San Diego, were so charmed by the impending arrival of Sr. Walter Cronkite and a CBS TV crew yesterday (on a whale-watching expedition) that they turned to and painted every building in town. That includes three small stores and a fish processing plant....

In comparison, consider this excerpt from a travel diary by Jean Baptiste Racine, French playwright and historian — the first campaign on which he followed the King Louis XIV in 1678:

Fere Champenoise. Vi try The affection of the peasants; fires of joy. lanterns at all the windows.... They had even gone so far in their elation attendant to his [the king's] visit that they painted the village's few brick structures, including the itsy-bitsy crayfish processing plant near the river's edge.

This brief intertextual collage displays several specific universal narrative functions. Morgan’s employment of common-frame data structures — Cronkite as king, Morgan himself as royal consort — bears uncanny resemblance to stock formulae used wholesale by other writers at Copley Press (see Arturo Ruiz Cardenas’s groundbreaking structural analysis of Tribune writer Alison DaRosa's gushing front-page story regarding Maureen O’Connor’s secret life as a bum/Queen of San Diego, San Diego Reader, September 15, 1988).

Scholars, particularly Vjaceslav Vsevolodovic Ivanov, director of the Section on Structural Typology of the Institute of Slavic and Balkan Walter Leland Cronkite Studies at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, have suggested that Morgan’s outlandish aggrandizement of Cronkite is little more than an attempt to convince his readership that he (Morgan) is indeed an influential-newspaper-editor-with-well-connected-friends-in-high-places. “It [Morgan’s Tribune column] reflects nothing more than a woefully misplaced sense of self-importance,” states Ivanov.

Others, like Jerzy Pupik, are not so certain. They feel the meaning goes deeper and often cite the following examples to bolster their case:

2/6/79 - THE NAMES: Walter Cronkite. who flew in at mid-day from honors at Austin, Texas, speaks to the Chamber of Commerce tomorrow and flies with his family on Thursday morning to San Ignacio lagoon for a turn of whale-watching ... [CBS's] code name for Cronkite is Gorilla. As in “Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?" “Anywhere it wants..."

7/18/84 — “A convention with no Cronkite is no convention at all”:

SAN FRANCISCO — Others may use the name of Herb Caen, the Chronicle columnist who owns this town, as a means of acquiring a good table at a fine restaurant But Walter Cronkite has his own method.

... He showed the neophytes how an anchorman does it. He was on the air so much, displaying the full force of his energy, that he earned the nickname of “Old Iron Butt”

The glamorous appellations of “Gorilla” and “Old Iron Butt” that Morgan discloses to the public via his newspaper function as a means of creating a Superman out of an aged anchorman. Disregarding the Russian Formalist school’s interpretation of Morgan’s starry-eyed devotion as being “weak minded” and “a source of agonizing embarrassment to the public at large,” other literary technologists have suggested that Morgan is consciously proselytizing his readership by fashioning a cult object (i.e., the Walter Cult). French ethnologist Roger Bastide, who has studied such cults, claims that the Morganian “Gorilla Idolatry" resembles the Father/Gorilla God worship found among the Nago-Yomba of Sudan, the Bantu Angolan, the Congolese, and among pseudo-Oriental underground groups found in Los Angeles, Nova Scotia, and Little Rock, Arkansas. Bastide points to the following excerpt as evidence:

2/7/79 — THE WAY IT IS: Writer Cronkite, as much the trusted idol of cynical TV generations as Will Rogers was of Depression America, came early and stayed late for a Chamber of Commerce reception last night. He glowed through a series of unexpected encounters.... Last night a limousine driver named Henry Ford was more attentive to Cronkite. his witty wife Betsy, and their actress daughter Kathy, who is finishing a book about children of celebrities.

Morgan, Bastide also claims, is attempting to present Cronkite as an all-powerful, all-knowing Powerhouse and suggests that Morgan envisions Cronkite as someday being a benevolent world dictator: “Cronkite’s responsibility would then be total: Church, Left, Right, State, Judiciary, Chinese, League for Divorce, anarchist unions, and classical humanists would be helpless before him ... Morgan, having aided him [Cronkite] in his majestic rise to power, would most certainly quit his position as Tribune editor/columnist and seek to influence global politics, leaving forever the smug, mind-numbingly dull social life of San Diego far behind him.”

This in mind, it is significant to note Morgan’s compulsive need to write of his friendship with Old Iron Butt and of the many close times they have shared. Careful lest the public forget just how very close they are, Morgan, in almost Orwellian fashion, has chronicled his Master’s every move, thought, and desire. They have even sailed together, as Morgan ofttimes has reminded us:

9/26/79 — "Just Put Yellow Island in Christmas Stocking" — At sea, with Walter [Gorilla] Cronkite:

OFF MAINE — .... "Fine, fine!" Capt. Writer [Apeman] Cronkite said as he obligingly made a second sweep past it in his yawl Wyntje. It was a sparkling August day, which meant we didn't need the hoods up on our parkas....

9/27/79 — “The joyful tenor of a hymnsing"

OFF MAINE — It may not startle Americans to know that Walter Cronkite is a whiz of a hymn singer. The dependable face, after all, might be seen in the choir loft, probably among the baritones, where the voice we trust could steady the wavering sopranos and anchor the tenors.

During the New York Yacht Club summer cruise off Maine in August, there was time for hymns aboard Cronkite's yawl Wyntje. It was not revelry, nor worship, simply a happy recall of matters learned young in middle-America churches....

...we were off to Rockbond Chapel. A bare bulb outside a plain frame church lighted a hand-printed placard: HYMNSING 7 P.M. FRIDAY.

....We dropped our contributions in the hopper at the door when the benediction ended ... then came ... the time for visiting.

Before anyone could greet them, Betsy and [Gorilla] Cronkite made their way to shake the minister's hand and then congratulate the pianist and the soloists ... They gathered shyly about [Cronkite] to chat and shake his hand, not to seek autographs ...

He had sung hymns with them. There was a flood of warmth there, in the glare of the bare bulb outside Rockbound Chapel.

From the shadows I watched one of the rare all-American phenomena, one of the few men to bridge the schisms of the '70's, and felt glad that he is on our side.

9/28/79 — "Best story of all: a night at Rocky's”

OFF MAINE — As a storyteller, [Gorilla] Cronkite ranks with the best. But then so does his auburn-haired wife of 40 years, Betsy Cronkite.

…..A trace of skepticism moves across his Missouri-born wife's face when he talks of sailing around the world but is followed by a smile of affection. She has stood by through his remarkable heroics as a combat correspondent in World War II … She has raised two daughters and a son. She learned to go along with him almost 30 years ago when, living in Westchester county, he bought a Sailfish and decided he'd like to learn to sail.

12/9/83 — THE WAY IT IS: Seaman Walter Cronkite was on the phone yesterday ... Cronkite is going to Perth after New Year's ... Cronkite was also reminiscing ... "Afterwards I fell the dry grow dark and a towering shadow come across me," Cronkite said ...

6/14/84 — “The centuries echo along the Chesapeake”

ON CHESAPEAKE BAY it was Sunday afternoon … Walter Cronkite was at the helm of his 43-foot yawl Wyntje....The skipper might be the most trusted man in America....

8/29/86 — SUMMING UP: Walter Cronkite interrupted a summer sail of New England to go with his wife Betsy to the very social August Ball at Saratoga Springs. Ginger Rogers was a guest, too, and she and Cronkite caused a small stir as they danced together...

9/22/86 — CAROUSEL: Olga Goular lives among Point Loma's Portuguese now, but she grew up on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts and keeps track of her home town. One of the big social events of the season at the Vineyard is the island's annual charity auction. The biggest returns: … $4000 for a two-hour sail with Betsy and Walter Cronkite.

10/16/86 — Skipper Cronkite holds steady course

WE WERE snapping along on a fast starboard tack off the Maine harbor... when a wall of fog loomed ...

At the helm, Walter Cronkite, watching his radar screen, found time to recall a train porter who had awakened him one morning as he traveled to Missouri...

... Cronkite, at 69, remains one of the nation's more visible celebrities....

Of course, Cronkite finds friends everywhere. He wears his fame casually. The electric ripple of affectionate recognition still follows him....

Cronkite's charm is undiminished....

9/9/87 — THE NAMES: Mayor O'Connor, in New York ... jousted with Walter Cronkite (the veteran newsman, sailor and N.Y. Yacht Club member) at a Manhattan restaurant last night...

8/1/88 — ROCKING THE BOAT: Yachtsman Walter Cronkite told New York Times readers yesterday about his ride off San Diego with Dennis Conner...

4/19/88 — FAST CATS: The speedy catamaran with which Dennis Conner is rehearsing the next America's Cup defense got the approval of a New York Yacht Club skipper: Walter Cronkite ...

10/26/88 — Alison DaRosa, TRIBUTE: Walter Cronkite was in San Diego last night to salute his old sailing buddy, Tribune Editor Neil Morgan — “a lovely writer, a marvelous columnist and a great friend."

... Cronkite talked seriously about journalism ... He talked from the heart about Morgan, his friend of 20 years. "... I wish we could have more Neil Morgans.”

... Cronkite called for a “short intermission now ...”

“Whiz of a hymn singer” ... “remarkable heroics” ... “trusted idol” ... “most trusted man in America”... “yachtsman” ... “sailor” ... and Morgan ensures that it is known that he has shared the company of this multifaceted gem of a man. Consider yet another French source:

Seeing that I could not presently expect an illustrious occasion on which to distinguish myself, I attempted to illustrate my conquests by causing my name to be brought up everywhere I thought some honor could be gained.

It ill behooved me however to speak any further of my glory in the presence of those who had witnessed it.

That is why I shall leave it to my history to bring it out.

— "Conversation de Louis XIV devant Lille,” in Pellison, Oeuvres diverses, vol. 2 (Paris:Didot, 1735), p.336.

A god of any man's making would be incomplete without its female counterpart. To this end, Morgan has utilized Betsy — Bride of Iron Butt. It is impossible to glimpse the limits of his symphonic elaboration of the Cronkite godhead’s comings and goings and whatnots:

2/8/79 — QUOTABLES: Walter Cronkite had a speech to give yesterday at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon and made it a resounding plea for free press. That was all he needed to do, since he’s on vacation, but, as Betsy Cronkite said: 'The only thing Walter is really scared of in the whole world is a free moment..." In the afternoon [Cronkite] took his family to visit Sea World. By 6 Cronkite was ready for Tijuana, but his family overruled him and sanity prevailed with an early dinner at La Valencia (stunned vacationers looking up from their cocktails and jigsaw puzzles to greet the Evening News in person) ... What came to mind, in one instance, was this answer to a reporter's question about "what really bothers Walter" His wife’s answer: "Walter worries about shrinking.”

2/12/79 — WEEKENDER: Betsy and Walter Cronkite flew out of San Diego today after a rousing holiday among gray whales ... “It was magnificent. We saw the whole life cycle.” Cronkite said. "The mating, and a birth near our skiff. A baby calf that swam up and let us pet it”....

2/1/84 — THE NAMES: Walter Cronkite came home Tuesday from a six-week trip around the world ...

6/20/85 — AMONG US: Walter Cronkite was barbecuing steaks at Martha's Vineyard. Mass., last evening....

8/1/85 — THE NAMES: Betsy Cronkite says she lost five pounds [the excess poundage a result, no doubt, of Walter's manic steak barbecuing] in her week at Golden Door last month. A balanced family: She says her husband Walter put on five pounds [more steaks?] in the same week at the Bohemian Grove encampment....

9/25/85 — INSIDE JOKE: Walter Cronkite flew to Amsterdam yesterday, where Queen Juliana is dedicating the new Dutch International Press Center and its Walter Cronkite Press Room ...

6/27/86 — STAGE SET: Walter Cronkite’s son Chip, a TV editor, is spending a month in San Diego with his actress wife....

8/21/86 — LIKELY STORY: Like any Del Mar bettor. Walter Cronkite called the wrong number when he put his bet down at the Saratoga Springs race track. Back at his seat he explained the problem to his wife, Betsy. "Go ahead," she teased. “You’re the most trusted man in America. Take it back and tell him you want to exchange it.” Cronkite looked hurt...

10/3/86 — SLY STUFF: Walter Cronkite dropped out of the Explorers Club in New York, but he still misses obituaries in the club journal ...

1/4/87 — Her World by Judith Morgan [wife of Neil]

....For an already radiant friend who had lost weight and turned healthy [Bride of Iron Butt?], I chose a sweatshirt from the Golden Door spa near Escondido. And for sailing pals, there were copies of Walter Cronkite's book North by Northeast, which he happened to be autographing when I wandered into a bookshop in Camden, Maine...

5/20/87 — WAY IT IS: Betsy and Walter Cronkite lunched in The Polo Room at N.Y.'s elegant Westbury Hotel yesterday....

As the above clearly illustrates, Neil Morgan’s unusual consciousness has deftly employed Gorilla and Bride of Iron Butt as stereotyped iconographical units. The couple serve, in effect, as intertextual archetypes and as the subject of the theoretical representation they provide:

“We might say that the timid hero procures a restricted life for men, whereas the brazen hero [i.e.. Old Iron Butt] brings them a promise of resurrection.” Claude Levi-Strauss. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Alberto Giacometti, André Malraux, Roman Jakobson, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Jean-Paul Sartre have all, in one way or another, alluded to or prophesied Morgan’s friendship with Cronkite — itself/himself here and now. Their union was perhaps most closely mirrored in the relationship of Richard Wagner and Frederich Nietzsche. Nietzsche worshiped Wagner and also dreamed of someday establishing a new world order upon the principles and ideas they shared. This messianic fantasy appeared early in Morgan’s coverage of Cronkite — to find his way to his master’s presence was to encounter the promise of “the promised land”:

8/22/72 — "Cronkite... it's tough at the top”

MIAMI BEACH — It’s almost serene inside Walter Cronkite's booth, but nowhere nearly so sanitized as Cronkite himself appears on the screen ...

Cronkite, if you take the word of Richard Reeves in New fork Magazine, is too famous to walk around at a political convention and see what’s happening ...

Rubbish, says Cronkite. but then he doesn’t walk around much, either, and to reach his aerie above the convention floor, even if he has eased your way, you sit in a hot trailer waiting for credentials, make your rendezvous with a public relations guide, flash your pass at more guards than confront you if you are on your way to the convention podium and finally lurch across a catwalk at ceiling level into the promised land.

Cronkite stands from his swivel chair and beams and shakes your hand and you wonder why it took you so long ...

The desperate need humans have to believe — in themselves, in something greater than themselves, is a theme that has preoccupied great literature for centuries. While literary theoreticians plow through their journals and back issues of the San Diego Tribune, Morgan, heedless of the scope of the course he travels, remains steady at the helm. Hero-worship and its epic extrapolation as detailed in Morgan's work are the hallmarks of the ages-old genre being reborn here in San Diego. Professor Pupik, when addressing this rebirth, could not have known how true his words were when he closed his address with the familiar refrain, “There is a very fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime."

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