A memoir-type story about my own experience as a freelance journalist covering the abortive communist coup attempt in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sept 30, 1965.
In December 1975 President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, made a brief, one-day stopover in Jakarta on their way back home from an official visit to Beijing. A CBS News crew was traveling with the presidential entourage. I was already running my public relations (PR) agency at the time but continued to do occasional stringing work for both Time magazine and CBS News. Bernard Kalb, the CBS News Asia Bureau Chief I closely worked with during the aftermath of the bloody October 1965 putsch, had been reassigned to the Washington, DC, bureau. Brian Ellis, the new Bureau Chief, asked me to assist him in lining up chauffeur-driven cars for the traveling correspondents and members of the production crew. Bob Little, the Foreign Editor from the New York head office, assigned me to be a special personal assistant to Walter Cronkite, the well-known CBS Evening News’ anchor at the time.
I was walking with Walter on the front yard of the Freedom (Merdeka) Palace following the welcoming ceremony presided over by President Suharto. Hundreds of schoolchildren holding miniature Indonesian and American flags on both of their hands lined up the walkways leading from the palace grounds to the street in front of the palace. They were all putting on cheerful smiles and waving their flags towards Walter. We stepped onto the street to see more school kids standing on both sides of it waving their flags toward the CBS Evening News anchor. Walter smiled and waved back at them all. “What a far cry from Beijing, Tommy,” he remarked. He told me there were schoolchildren too in the Chinese capital but none of them smiled and nearly all were showing grim faces. “These kids here are like little angels,” he added. I could only say to him, “Well, Walter, these kids have been raised that way, I mean it’s in their culture to be joyful and friendly to foreigners and strangers visiting their country.” I couldn’t find any better words to say. I’d never been to Beijing so I couldn’t make any comparison. We then got into our car and went back to the hotel, as Walter had to fly back to New York earlier than the other members of the CBS News crew.
I went with Walter to the airport to make sure he wouldn’t have any problems with immigration or customs. With my press card I could go inside the terminal up to the immigration check counters. As soon as we got to the airport we rushed to the Pan American Airways (PanAm) check-in area as the line of people waiting to get their boarding passes was pretty long. I was standing beside Walter and followed him as he moved forward in the line. There were a quite number of Americans lining up behind the CBS Evening News anchor with their families or friends standing alongside. I heard many of them whispering to one another, “Look, it’s Walter Cronkite…”
I’m sure Walter must have heard his name being whispered around but he kept on talking to me. “You don’t have to go inside to the restricted area, Tommy. I’ll be OK.” Then he pulled a business card from his wallet, asked me for a pen with which he scribbled some words on the back of the card. He gave it to me and said, “Thanks for your help, Tommy. Call me up when you get to New York, OK?” At that point a big American lady came over to me and bluntly asked in a loud whisper, while the other American folks were curiously listening, “Is that Walter Cronkite you’ve been talking to?” By that time Walter was probably about three feet ahead of me as he kept on moving with no regard at all to the little commotion about him going on around me. “Yes, Ma’m, you’re absolutely right. That sure is Walter Cronkite,” I said in a voice loud enough to make the CBS News celebrity turn his head towards me. I seized that moment to announce to him, “Mr. Cronkite, you’ve got quite a few fans here who want to say hi to you.” The anchor man craned his neck and turned towards those folks behind him, waved his hand and said, “Hi everybody.” They all said hi back, as if in a chorus. I felt very good at being successful to bridge a communication gap between a celebrity and his excited fans in a place least likely to be the venue for an unexpected encounter between them.
While Walter was being attended by the check-in girl I pulled out his business card from my shirt pocket and read what he wrote on it. It said, “Thanks Tommy for your help. Don’t forget to call me when in New York. Good luck. Walter.” After he finished with the check-in formalities and got his boarding pass I walked with him towards the entrance to the restricted customs and immigration area. “Thanks for the nice words you wrote on your card, Walter,” I said as we shook hands before he went in. He answered with a big smile, “You bet. You did a good job, thanks again.”
My stringing job for CBS News also gave me the opportunity to meet the man who succeeded Walter to anchor the CBS Evening News in 1981. Dan Rather was one of the correspondents traveling to Jakarta to cover President Ford’s visit.
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