When we were unable to find the way to express our thoughts or feelings about the events swirling around us, he was there. Every night his voice escorted us past wars, assassinations, revolutions, inaugurations, funerals, presidential resignations — and more wars, more revolutions. Eric Sevareid was, for most of his long career with CBS News, the voice of America.
“When I was doing nightly commentary, I wasn’t really trying to tell people what to think,” he said recently. "I was trying to tell them what they should be thinking about and how to think about these things that engulf us everyday — that is, what historical importance to give these things and how to separate the minor issues from the truly major ones."
Sevareid was a teacher and a reporter, a rarity. His specialty was the commentary, something he did “longer and better than anyone else,” according to NBC’s David Brinkley.
Sevareid had been a radio correspondent during World War II, but in 1948 he embarked on a new career when he began the televised political commentaries that made him a familiar and riveting presence in millions of American homes.
Listen to the voice reporting via radio toward the end of World War II:
… Only the soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not. He may share the soldier’s outward life and dangers, but he cannot share his inner life because the same moral compulsion does not bear upon him. The observer knows he has alternatives of action; the soldier knows he has none. It is the mere knowing which makes the difference. Their worlds are very far apart, for one is free, the other a slave …
War happens inside a man. It happens to one man alone. It can never be communicated. That is the tragedy — and perhaps the blessing. A thousand ghastly wounds are really only one. A million martyred lives leave an empty place at only one family table. That is why, at bottom, people can let wars happen, and that is why nations survive them and carry on. And, I am sorry to say, that is also why in a certain sense you and your sons from the war will be forever strangers.
Sevareid, who broadcast those words from London, was exhausted by the war and rumors of more war by the time he spoke those words. His newscasts had already made him familiar to his countrymen, but that particular broadcast made him famous. “I have never seen such mail on my desk,” the New York office secretary wrote him. “You must have reached the hearts of millions.”
A hardworking journalist, the 26-year-old Sevareid had been hired in 1939 by Edward R. Murrow, “the man who invented me,” he would later say. At the time, Sevareid was holding down two jobs: city editor of the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune and night editor at the United Press in Paris.
“We were like a young band of brothers in those early radio days with Murrow,” he has recalled. “If my affections are not easily given, neither are they easily withdrawn. I have remained through it all with CBS News, and if it is regarded as old-fashioned to feel loyalty to an organization, so be it.”
In the first of numerous foreign assignments for CBS, Sevareid scored a gigantic scoop as the first newsman to report in 1940 that France was about to capitulate to the Germans by asking for an armistice. After the fall of France, Sevareid went to London, continuing to broadcast from there until October 1940, when he returned to the United States and was assigned to the CBS Washington bureau.
In 1943, he once again became a war correspondent. He spent several months in the China-Burma-lndia theater of operations, where, with 19 others, he was forced to bail out of a crippled plane into the jungle. There the men lived for four weeks with a nonhostile tribe of headhunters before being rescued. Then he returned to Europe, covered the Italian campaign, and reported the course of the war through France and Germany.
By the end of the war, he was 32 years old. He had already lived, it seemed, a thousand lives in a thousand places. And in 1945 he sat down to write — almost entirely from memory — the autobiography, the classic Not So Wild a Dream, that described some of those lives.
The son of a small-town Norwegian banker, Sevareid was born on November 26, 1912, in Velva, North Dakota. In the 1920s his family moved to Minneapolis, where he grew up enamored of words and good writing — and adventure. By the time he graduated from Minneapolis Central High School in 1930, the lanky Sevareid was as hungry as Huckleberry Finn to taste the world around him.
As it turned out, he followed Huck’s example and took to the river. But instead of a raft, Sevareid and a friend manned a canoe and traveled 2200 miles to demonstrate, as he writes in Not So Wild a Dream, “that it was possible to travel, entirely by water, from ocean to ocean, straight through the heart of the continent” from the Gulf of Mexico to the Hudson Bay.
That adventure, undertaken at age 17, was the basis for Sevareid’s first book, Canoeing With the Cree, produced when he was 18.
Then he traveled the rails with hoboes and prospected for gold in the High Sierras of California before settling down long enough to work his way through the University of Minnesota. After his graduation in 1935, he sailed across the Atlantic and studied at both the London School of Economics and the Alliance Francais.
In Paris, as already mentioned, he worked at the Herald Tribune and the United Press. Then, on the eve of World War II, Murrow, whom Sevareid had met earlier in London, invited him to join CBS Radio just as he was about to accept a job as war correspondent for United Press International.
“Thus, before the war started,” writes CBS founder William S. Paley in his memoir, As It Happened, “we had in [Paul] White, Murrow, [William L.] Shirer, Sevareid, [H.V.] Kaltenborn, [George Fielding] Eliot, [Elmer] Davis, and [Thomas] Gradin the foundation of one of the most distinguished news organizations ever assembled by any branch of the media.”
After the peace treaties were signed and after his 1946 autobiography had found its place among the New York Times’ 10 best books of the year, Sevareid, the radio man, found television, the medium in which he would achieve his greatest influence.
His televised commentaries became a mainstay of CBS News’s presidential, convention, and off-year election coverages. He was also there for summaries and analyses following presidential addresses, as well as for year-end summary telecasts of the major news events.
In 1959, he traveled again to London and remained there until 1961 as European correspondent for CBS News. Then, in 1964, he was appointed national correspondent and based in Washington, D.C., where for the next 13 years he continued his regular analyses on the CBS Evening News and participated in such events as Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration, the funeral of Winston Churchill, and the Vietnam Perspective telecasts.
Vietnam particularly concerned Sevareid. In the spring of 1966, after realizing how little firsthand knowledge he had about the war, he visited the battlefields of Vietnam. Later he also accompanied Johnson on his Asian journey. In Vietnam, he found confusion and despair about U.S. intervention. He also found the same despair in his colleagues’ inability to report the war. The footage that appeared on the networks’ various evening news programs could not, he felt, begin to tell the story. “The facts,” he said, “didn’t represent the equipment.”
His commentaries on his Asian trips were heard on the CBS Evening News and on a half-hour “illustrated lecture,” telecast June 21, 1966. The latter broadcast entered the Congressional Record.
In the 1970s, he participated in the coverage of the resignations of Vice-President Spiro Agnew (October 1973) and President Richard Nixon (August 1974). His Agnew commentaries netted him his second Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He was awarded his first Emmy for the report LBJ: The Man and the President, broadcast January 22, 1973.
In 1975, following the military coup and revolution in the Dominican Republic, Sevareid journeyed to Santo Domingo to report on and analyze events there.
Then, on November 30, 1977, having reached the CBS mandatory retirement age, he ceased his daily journalism activities and began service as a consultant to CBS News in Washington.
In a telecast made during the week he retired, Sevareid had this to say:
This reporter was not present at the Creation — of the first true mass medium of communication, which is broadcasting. But my own working life has encompassed very nearly the whole of this first generation of systematic reporting by electronic means, the first new form of journalism.
It is a marvelous and frightening instrument, broadcasting, as part of this marvelous and frightening century. But ordinary men must use it, as ordinary men have made this century what it is. Bad men can use it to their advantage, but in free societies, only for a time — and a shorter time, I think, than in previous eras. The camera’s unblinking eye sees through character faster than the printed word.
Assessing the commentator’s career, Paley wrote in As It Happened: "Eric Sevareid … had become the most respected analyst of the news in the industry. Like Walter [Cronkite], he earned that respect and credibility over the 38 years he was with CBS News because people found they could trust his commentaries and analyses to be fair, honest, and well founded."
In hindsight, it is curious that television became his métier — curious because television is often said to be a medium for the picture, not the word and not necessarily the commentary. In one sense, Sevareid’s specialty more aptly belonged to radio — old radio — where the word did indeed reign. Yet Sevareid seemed to confound what television was supposed to be. With the “camera’s unblinking eye” on him, Sevareid, night after night, year after year, enhanced the picture with his word, his voice.
“There is in the American people a tough, undiminished instinct for what is fair,” he said on November 30, 1977. “Rightly or wrongly, I have the feeling I have passed that test.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Eric Sevareid’s induction in 1987.