How Walter Cronkite Betrayed Journalism and Ignited the Rage That Burns Against the Media Today
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Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite tells you all any sane person would want to know about the subject, and tells it fluently and with rigorous attachment to sources.
It also tells a greater tale, of the ideological and policy uniformity of the U.S. national media in the 65 years following World War II, and of the unself-conscious solidarity of the liberal media-academic complex, serenely oblivious to the alternative interpretations of their antics in the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair. There is not the slightest consideration, in the mind of the author or his subject, that Vietnam could have been won; that, the war having been started by the Kennedy-Johnson Democrats, there was any plausible alternative, morally or in policy terms, to ensuring the swiftest possible defeat of the United States and a Communist takeover of Indochina. Nor, in 667 pages of text, is a syllable of consideration invested in the possibility that hounding Nixon from office and tearing the administration apart was anything but an act of courageous professional munificence and national purification.
Those seeking to discover the wellsprings of the public rage against the national media that has been the fertile ground from which have grown Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Hannity, Beck, and the entire Tea Party, scores of millions of people shaking their fists at the liberal journalistic-academic and Hollywood and Wall Street establishment, need look no farther than this book.
Walter Cronkite was a personally decent and convivial man, who literally couldn’t kill a fly, was kind to his children, generally helpful to juniors, authentically curious about the news, and, in his time, an energetic reporter. And he had humanitarian qualities not widely shared among his soul mates; he credited Richard Nixon with a dignified exit and approved President Ford’s pardon of him. The source of his prominence, though Brinkley does not exactly write this, was serendipitous luck: He had the reassuring voice of a country doctor on his house calls, and a moustache that was mature and comforting, not raffish and worrisome like Errol Flynn’s or Clark Gable’s, much less absurd, like Hitler’s. His vast cult of Middle American unaffected worldliness was a scam: He influenced the color and sequence of stories with his liberal biases, carefully disguised behind his earnest, homely mask.
Further, and I knew him slightly and can attest to this, the dirty little secret about Walter was that he was not intelligent outside his craft. I rented a house near him on Martha’s Vineyard one summer and encountered him on the Manhattan circuit a number of times. He could not have been more pleasant and was neither vain nor haughty, but he didn’t actually know much about most of what he reported. This was surprising, given his Fifties television program, You Are There, recreating great historic moments. I remember one of his records of famous speeches and news items from the recorded age, in which he explained that after the Munich Conference’s abandonment and carve-up of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary seized chunks of the stricken country, “as a buffer against Germany.” When I knew him well enough, I asked Walter about this, since his explanation was historical and geographic nonsense, and he was puzzled, but surmised he was accommodating Polish-American and Cold War opinion.
When he accompanied President Nixon to China in 1972, he reminisced with fellow correspondents, at the end of one of the days, that the visit clearly enjoyed “what we called in the war, a Hitler moon.” I thought at first that he had flipped. He explained that this meant good light for bombing German targets in 1942-45, but it still seemed a pretty strange metaphor for a diplomatic visit.
He was, with Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Theodore H. White, and others, one of those who implicitly claimed a worldly insight and even a dashing and adventurous past, for having seen war as a correspondent and some of the great capitals of the old world in the extreme winter of combat. Cronkite got closer than most to the action, and liked to wear a military correspondent’s uniform. He was a good reporter, but he was only a reporter, until his transmogrification into an allegory of credibility as a newsreader. Throughout his journalistic career, he was an avid partisan, though on air, he generally made a respectable effort to disguise it. But in his summit days as the CBS News anchorman, he was also a CBS radio opinion-commentator. As Brinkley accommodatingly puts it: “The horror of Nixon’s continuation of the Vietnam War obliged Cronkite to become a left-leaning CBS radio editorializer.”
Brinkley approvingly remarks that Cronkite used such dissimulations as “It is believed by some people” to attack Nixon, and that Cronkite said, “The fun part of it was taunting Nixon.” Cronkite “also attacked the Nixon administration with some regularity for abandoning the poor, race-baiting, and violating the U.S. Constitution.” He didn’t report that Nixon spared the country the nightmare of court-ordered busing of children around metropolitan areas for school integration; that Nixon, through private-sector district and regional agreements, ended school segregation throughout the country; or that levels of poverty and the crime rate declined appreciably under his administration.
Of course, Cronkite was perfectly entitled to his opinions, and even to express them as long as they were billed as comment and not just reporting; but, though he was fairly professional, that was not always the case. He owed much to his exposure as a correspondent in General Eisenhower’s armies, and his greatest journalistic success was his return with Eisenhower to Normandy 20 years after D-Day; but he objected to Ike’s running for president because he was just “trying to exploit his status as a war hero.” So had George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and seven other presidents. Cronkite had every right to support Adlai Stevenson, but no grounds to consider that a general was ineligible to run for president.
Cronkite was regularly considered as a potential candidate by the Democrats. Robert Kennedy asked him to run for the U.S. Senate from New York, and he was urged, even on bumper stickers, on George McGovern as a vice-presidential candidate in 1972. Brinkley helpfully volunteers: “What Cronkite most admired about McGovern, why he would have at least considered running on the Democratic ticket, was his conviction that Nixon’s mad B-52 strikes against Hanoi and Haiphong, which were killing tens of thousands of North Vietnamese civilians, were reprehensible.” They didn’t kill large numbers of civilians, and helped end the war. When “Cronkite suspected that the Nixon administration was trying to build support for its latest commitment to the South Vietnamese army,” he, ex–war correspondent though he was, ignored the fact that that is what one normally does with allies, and that Nixon completely extracted the U.S. from the war initiated and largely lost by Walter’s Democratic friends, and the South Vietnamese army defeated the Communists, with U.S. air support, in April 1972.
Brinkley tells us that “Walter Cronkite forfeited electoral politics to protect the integrity of American journalism.” It is mind-reading to surmise his motives, though premonitions that McGovern was going to run the most disastrous and incompetent campaign in U.S. history may have figured in them. Given his position, he should not have allowed his name to be bandied about as a political candidate. By his endless subtle attacks on the U.S. effort to salvage a non-Communist South Vietnam, Cronkite contributed importantly to the destruction of the integrity of American journalism.
I have been through all this in other columns and places, but the South Vietnamese, with periodically renewed U.S. air support, could have won, after the departure of American land forces, and Cronkite’s demand for a negotiated peace after the 1968 Tet Offensive, which he knew to be a call for surrender as Hanoi wouldn’t negotiate anything else at that time, misread what happened on the ground in Vietnam, helped sink his friend Lyndon Johnson, and filled Cronkite with a hubristic attachment to defeat in Vietnam that he never reviewed in the light of later positive changes in the course of the war. Almost all of Watergate is a fraud, with the possible exception of Nixon’s (probably unprovable) motives in authorizing payment of legal fees and family expenses for some of the defendants.
The whole Cronkite-Brinkley thesis that “Nixon [was] the anti-hero [and] worked on the dark side of politics” was a monstrous defamation of a capable, though sometimes neurotic, president, and an almost mortal wound to America as a political society. Until liberal America comes to grips with what it did in Vietnam and Watergate, or at least abandons its affectation of moral certitude and exaltation about them, there will be no workable political consensus in America. And barring another Reagan miracle (the avoidance of which was the main reason Brinkley’s mentor, Stephen Ambrose, recanted his phobia about Nixon in his verbose three-volume biography of Nixon and lamented the move to impeach him), there will continue to be failed presidents and venal Congresses (of both parties).
Douglas Brinkley was once commissioned to review a book of mine and reviewed me instead, and I will not do the same to him. Readers should be aware that he is as much of a Democratic hack as Cronkite. He is also notoriously discourteous, a contributing editor of the vulgar lowbrow glossy Vanity Fair, and one of the chief propagators of the myth of John Kerry as an enlightened war hero altogether imaginable as president. But he is an adequate writer and competent researcher. There’s nothing wrong with being a Democrat, but relentless partisanship isn’t history. This is an informative life of Walter Cronkite, but more importantly, a demonstration of the size and vigor of the virulent liberal aneurysm that still threatens the American political bloodstream.
— Conrad Black is the author of “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,” “Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full,” and, just released, “A Matter of Principle.” He can be reached at email@example.com. This column first appeared in the National Review.