Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite, R.I.P.

My recollections and reflections pertaining to the epochal life of Walter Cronkite are fragmented and scattered tonight. Random anecdotes registered on my conscious from the car radio on my way home; like the revelation that Cronkite so defined the role of TV news anchorman in the English-speaking world that in several European countries, a good anchorman was referred to as a "Cronkiter".

In my life, one 'Cronkiter' moment stands out and casts its shadow over all the other momentous Cronkite anchorages in America's passages through the 20th century.

1968 was a pivotal year in American political history. It was an election year. President Lyndon Johnson's reelection was challenged by determined primary opponents within his own party. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was to be assassinated on April 4 of that year; and after him, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot down on June 5th.

In Vietnam, The Vietcong and People's Army of Vietnam (from North Vietnam) launched what came to be known as the
Tet Offensive, striking military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The initial attacks stunned allied forces and took them by surprise, but most were quickly contained and beaten back, inflicting massive casualties on civilians Communist forces. By April, the last vestiges of the offensive were vanquished by American forces with horrendous casualties on the Communist forces.

Up until this point in the war, Walter Cronkite had believed in LBJ's intervention in this Vietnamese civil war. Even though the Tet Offensive was an American military success, it shocked domestic opinion, already rent with anti-war demonstrations: those of my fellow Americans who had been undecided about the war were incredulous as to how our enemy could sustain such an effort after we had been told by out leaders for so long, that there was "light at the end of the tunnel".

As the Tet Offensive subsided, Walter Cronkite decided to go to Vietnam himself and seek the answers to LBJ's Vietnam puzzle. After his return, Cronkite concluded his nightly broadcast of 27 February with a uniquely personal editorial report to his network audience:
Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective.

Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities?

I'm not sure.

The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff.

On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the [South] Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that -- negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.

But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.
Lyndon Johnson said, as he turned off his TV set that night, "If I've lost Walter, I've lost middle America". On March 31st, LBJ announced his withdrawal from his presidential reelection campaign.

The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon "saved" the
Vietnam War for another seven years.

10 Moderated Comments:

Blogger Kentucky Rain said...

I was in basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri when RFK was assassinated. It made a really bad situation even worse. Our marching "tunes" all spoke to the war. One example:

"I want to go to Vietnam and I want to kill the Viet Cong...Left, Right, Left."

To this day I remember that tune as well as I remember the late great Walter Cronkite.

7/18/2009 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, another famous person to leave. Walter (referred to as "Uncle Walt") was a great man that knew how to deliver news. I wish these noobs nowadays had such skills. Prayers to Walter's family and friends. In his memory, for his fans I have collected some great sites and articles (more than 200) to know all about Walter Cronkite. If you are interested take a look at the below link

7/18/2009 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

I seem to recall John Anderson considering Cronkite as a potential running-mate. He probably would have been a good one, too.

7/18/2009 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Commander Zaius said...

One thing that worries me with his passing is how during the 60's we had Walter and just a few others to sanely guide us through those years.

Now we have a whole spectrum of right wing and left wing pundits with both sides going deep into the extremes with each side painting the other as evil.

7/18/2009 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

I share your lament, Beach Bum.

7/18/2009 05:47:00 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

Robert Lloyd, wrote a column expressing his appreciation for the consummate newsman that Walter Cronkite was. It is found in the Los Angeles Times, today.

I want to share just a few sentences:

"We have come to understand news as show business, and are inclined to consume it as such, as part of the many-channeled entertainment package our broadcasters and cable companies provide, and not as a break from it - as a sacred space in which facts matter more than opinions, but in which opinions, when rarely and carefully expressed, matter. ...

Network news anchors still aim for that mix of eloquence and authority that Cronkite embodied, but they compete, at a disadvantage, with the noise of an ascendant punditocracy and the mountain-from-molehill nattering of cable news organizations that live on crises - It's not the old voice of reassuring honesty that they cultivate, but one of perpetual anxiety. There are many more rooms in the mansion that is television news nowadays, but they have grown proportionately smaller; they are no longer fit for giants."

Would that there be some budding "Uncle Walter"s who long to follow in his legendary footsteps.

7/18/2009 10:37:00 PM  
Blogger Soros' Proxy said...

Norman Solomon is a journalist, historian, and progressive activist and author of book "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death". He writes of Cronkite's Feb '68 broadcast,

".....It was an acknowledgement that the United States, contrary to official Washington claims, was not winning the war in Vietnam, and could not win. But it was not a statement that the war was wrong. A problem there is that if the critique says this war is bad because it's not winnable, then the response is, ‘Oh yeah, we'll show you it can be winnable, or the next war will be winnable.' So, that critique doesn't challenge the prerogatives of military expansion, or aggression if you will, or empire."

7/20/2009 09:22:00 AM  
Blogger Vigilante said...

Good point. Cronkite bought into playing dominoes. Unlike McNamara, he also believed in keeping an accurate score. He counted coffins as well as dominoes. He was honest. Let that be said on Cronkite.

7/21/2009 07:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good riddance to Walter Cronkite. He was a [blah blah . . . . . . . . . . ] John F. Kennedy [blah blah . . . . . ] and the Kennedys [blah . . . . . . ]

7/22/2009 09:09:00 PM  
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7/22/2009 09:13:00 PM  

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