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January 20, 2006

Walter Cronkite Weighs In

Roy Meachum

In writing about Eugene McCarthy several weeks back, I pointed out that Washington held on to the illusion that we would triumph in Vietnam until Walter Cronkite took a post-Tet tour of the battlefields. He had been to the country several times and each time some aspect or incident gave cause to encourage the struggle.

Upon his return to the CBS anchor chair in New York, on February 27, 1968, Mr. Cronkite told the Johnson White House what none of us wanted to hear.

“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,” he said on the fateful broadcast.

“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.”

One month later, on March 31, President Johnson stunned the nation with the announcement he would not be a candidate for another four years, in that autumn’s elections. But as I wrote recently here, Eugene McCarthy and his idealistic legions had less to do with that decision than Walter Cronkite.

At the time, the very caring man from Texas was quoted to the effect that having lost the respected CBS anchor, also a Texan, he had lost Middle America.

Not until five years later, during the Paris peace negotiations, did Richard Nixon begin the general withdrawal of U.S. forces from Indo-China. But Americans still lost their lives until South Vietnam unconditionally surrendered, in April, 1975. Gerald Ford was then sitting in the Oval Office.

Stalemate or quagmire? Take your pick. They both describe military operations neither side can really win. In Iraq as in Vietnam, we have reached the point where further shedding of our young people’s blood is pointless, no matter what we are officially told. On that television newscast 38 years ago, Mr. Cronkite presciently summed up our present situation.

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders” he said, ”to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.”

How does the one-time holder of the title “The Most Trusted Man in America” feel now?

At a Sunday press conference, held in California to promote programs he’s doing for PBS, a reporter asked if he were anchor today would he have delivered a similar editorial.

“’Yes, I would!’ Cronkite blurted out before the reporter even got to the end of his question.’”

That’s how The Washington Post’s Lisa de Moaes put it and continued:

“‘I think we missed one of the great opportunities,’ Cronkite said, referring to Hurricane Katrina. ‘We had the opportunity to say to the world and to the Iraqis after that hurricane that Mother Nature had not treated us well…’ ”

She then paraphrased: “…to say that we had found ourselves lacking enough funds to help its (Katrina’s) victims rebuild, and that we therefore would have to bring our troops home.”

She reported: “‘We would have been able to retire with honor,’ he said, then noted a minute later: ‘I think we can retire with honor anyway…We have done everything we can. We’re going to have to leave (the Iraqis) someday….

“‘We should get out now.’”

Walter Cronkite and I once shared space; we had desks in the basement while Channel 9 (WTOP-TV then) was building the first Broadcast House, across from the District’s Wilson High School. He had come to CBS after a distinguished United Press career, covering World War II.

We talked off and on over the years, when he was still on-the-air, I would call when I was in New York; he was always warm and welcoming. We discussed what was happening. We were on the phone, I was just back from Cairo, when he was told the Shah had left Iran for exile in Egypt.

Our disagreements were only about details, never the substance of what we talked about. This time we are in locked-step accord, as every reader knows.

Accompanying the largest airborne operation in the World War II, the former U.P. I. correspondent narrowly missed capture and maybe death; he witnessed the maiming of enough men and boys to render him no friend to useless wars.

I can’t imagine that had he the public forum in the months before the invasion, he would not have added his voice to mine in pointing out the futility and waste of the adventure in Iraq.

Given Walter Cronkite’s journalistic preeminence, he just might have been able to keep The New York Times and The Washington Post from originally endorsing the folly of the slaughter that ensued.

To her detriment, Ms. de Moaes mocked Walter’s age, pointing out infirmities that include a problem walking, she said, and diminished hearing. She held up to ridicule his imitation of his late good friend, The New York Herald-Tribune’s Homer Bigart, whom I met on the Berlin Airlift.

The late Mr. Bigart stuttered only when speaking on public occasions. In the quiet of Frankfurt Press Club, the defect was scarcely there. I doubt very much he would have minded Walter’s imitation. At least, his name and memory were revived, I suspect with great fondness, although she didn’t say so.

The young lady’s desire to demonstrate her powers of observation was less than fair; besides she never questioned my old friend’s current mental facilities or his perspicacity.

Covering important commentary is not the same as kibitzing about sitcoms and so-called reality shows. She may have been out of her depth and simply fluttering words to cover her confusion.

Walter Cronkite’s powers of judgment were not touched by her side remarks.

Note: I hope you are very pleased to hear Christopher George Meachum returned from the Middle East last week; he had been shifted from Iraq to Kuwait briefly, before flying back. With further luck, my 20-year-old grandson is home in Howard County as you learn the news.

Of course, there is every chance the young man, who was still in high school when the invasion began, might be sent back, for another tour. Let me quote again:

“Don’t let them kid you, grandfather. We all knew what we were in for when we took the oath.”

His dedication to duty and a sense of responsibility reflects well only on Christopher, not his superiors, especially in the highest ranks.

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