Walter Cronkite was the kind of television news anchor that simply no longer exists. Yes, he was on board with Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam in the early years, which reflected the bipartisan consensus of the time, but by 1968, when the Tet Offensive laid bare all of the savage illusions of that catastrophic war, Cronkite stepped up and did the right thing.
On February 8, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy had given a speech in Chicago that was a timely rebuttal to the Johnson administration’s attempts to portray the Tet Offensive in Vietnam as an American victory. He had cleared the way for mainstream figures like Cronkite to take a stronger stand in opposition to the Vietnam war. On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite, which CBS News was fortunate enough to have as its anchor, reached the same conclusion as had Kennedy. In a special report to an audience of millions Cronkite said: “The only rational way out… will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
After watching Cronkite on the news that evening, President Johnson concluded that he had lost the American middle class on the Vietnam war.
Some among Johnson’s inner circle blamed the television networks (mainly because of Cronkite) for spreading “anti-U.S. propaganda.” [In His Own Right, p. 129.]
Can you imagine this charge being leveled today on any of our current journalistically — challenged news anchors?
Walter Cronkite, like Robert F. Kennedy, spoke a language critical of U.S. policy in Vietnam that appealed to the middle class. They both could get away with harshly criticizing Johnson’s war in Vietnam without worrying about being told they were “unAmerican.” (Although their political enemies tried.)
CBS News has devolved a long way from the likes of a person of Cronkite’s gravitas to the chirpy infotainment anchor we see today. At that moment in February 1968, Cronkite showed that he was still a journalist with integrity.
Today’s vapid hairdos who pretend to be “news anchors” should look closely at Cronkite’s actions at a time when he believed the nation was in peril. Where were those voices when George W. Bush was railroading the nation into yet another catastrophic war in Iraq? They were silent. And they should be ashamed of themselves.
There’s only one tribute to the memory of Walter Conkrite that means anything and that would be if TV “journalists” somehow learned from his example and did their goddamn jobs!
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).
Originally published by The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author