THE BECK/SMITH VAULT: Cronkite picks Best Presidents – and Worst

December 30, 1999

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Cronkite picks Best Presidents – and Worst

By Marilyn Beck and Stacy Jenel Smith

Walter Cronkite and wife Betsy are spending the week in Vienna, Austria, where, he reports, he’s been working from dawn to dusk preparing “The New Year’s Celebration 2000” that will be beamed from the famed Musikverein Concert Hall via satellite on PBS.

Included on the WNET Great Performances show that Cronkite will host – in addition to a concert of Strauss waltzes, polkas and marches – will be footage of Vienna as it was and as it has become.

One gets the feeling that the 83-year-old newsman will be relieved when the emphasis fades on the last century and the new millennium.

“As the world’s oldest living reporter, it seems I’m looked upon as the sage. I’ve probably been interviewed for more New Year’s Eve programs than anyone.”

Tired of the subject as he might be, one can’t resist asking him just a few questions about his many years of covering American affairs of state.

He still feels, he says, that “Jimmy Carter might not have been the smartest politician, but was the best brain in the White House. And Clinton comes close. It’s just regrettable Clinton got himself involved in such a scandalous affair, which will always serve as an asterisk to his name in history.”

His opinion of Gerald Ford? “The weakest president, though it wasn’t his fault. He never had a chance. He was only in power a couple of years.”

Is he sorry that Richard Nixon was pardoned? “Not anymore. It helped us put things behind and move on.”

The greatest president of the 20th century? “No doubt about it – Franklin Roosevelt. But then, Congress usually gives wartime presidents powers that enable them to do exceptional things.” Among the things Roosevelt did: “Centralizing power in Washington that changed the entire face of government in America.”