In 1974, Walter Cronkite demonstrated to his credit that he was willing to poke fun at his courtly manners and stentorian voice by appearing alongside Ted Baxter, his fictional doppelganger, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which appeared each week on CBS, the network where Cronkite had made his home since 1950.
But in retrospect, there were more than a few similarities between Ted Baxter and Walter Cronkite; both men succeeded as a result of their deep voice and trustworthy looks, rather than actual knowledge of the world. And both men were more than a little silly; Baxter deliberately so, Cronkite by embracing every fad aspect of liberalism that came down the pike.
According to Douglas Brinkley’s 2012 biography of Walter Cronkite, a year after yucking it up with Ted Baxter, the veteran CBS newsreader claimed that his favorite album of 1975 was Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, whose title was “an apt description for a wizened TV survivor like himself,” as Brinkley writes.
As with much self-deprecating humor, there’s more than a little truth in Cronkite’s claim. Brinkley’s biography is a story of a man moving further and further to the left, as his party did over the years, before collapsing into insanity.
In 1991, Christopher Hitchens wrote that “television is a megaphone for the transmission of official wisdom.” Outside of the Soviet Union, nowhere was that more true than the news shows of the original big three American networks, which by the late 1960s served essentially as the dissemination mechanism of Democrat Party talking points. In Cronkite, one of Brinkley’s worst conceits is that he repeatedly seems to imagine that his eponymous subject simply moistened his index finger and placed it into the breeze ever few years to determine what the public was clamoring for. In actuality, Cronkite simply adopted whatever was the current pose of his fellow liberals (at least as they described themselves back then) to serve as a national mouthpiece.
Books such as the first volume of Steve Hayward’s The Age of Reagan, and How We Got Here, David Frum’s look at the 1970s, do a far better job of explaining how liberals moved further and further to the left, using weapons such as poisoning American support for the Vietnam War and, shortly thereafter, radical environmentalism to increasingly sink America’s vitality.
Two Cronkites In One
While I doubt this is Brinkley’s goal, because of Cronkite’s longevity as first a reporter and then a television newsreader, Brinkley reveals numerous examples of plenty of hypocrisy from his subject, as Cronkite internalizes leftwing pose after leftwing pose. For example, in December of 1973, “the Gay Raiders,” a protest group designed to generate a more sympathetic portrayal of gays on both fictional and news TV programs, sent Mark Allan Segal and Harry Langhorne, two of its representatives. to sneak into Cronkite’s TV newsroom set in New York under false premises, to hold up a sign saying, “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice” while Cronkite was live and on the air nationwide with an audience of over 60 million viewers. While they succeeded, the CBS cameras quickly went black.
A few months later, while the pair of Gay Raiders were being tried for second-degree criminal trespassing as a result of their stunt, Cronkite struck up a conversation with Segal, and expressed his sympathy for his cause:
At the end of the trial, Segal was fined $450, deeming the penalty “the happiest check I ever wrote.” Not only did the activist receive considerable media attention, but Cronkite asked to meet privately with him to better understand how CBS might cover gay pride events. Cronkite, moreover, even went so far as to introduce Segal as a “constructive viewer” to top brass at CBS. It had a telling effect. “Walter Cronkite was my friend and mentor,” Segal recalled. “After that incident, CBS News agreed to look into the ‘possibility’ that they were censoring or had a bias in reporting news. Walter showed a map on the Evening News of the U.S. and pointed out cities that had passed gay rights legislation. Network news was never the same after that.”
While there’s no doubt that gays were often treated harshly on the (uniformly liberal) TV news and entertainment shows of the day, Segal and Langhorne’s Rupert Pupkin-esque efforts at making their viewpoint known were deplorable. And they beg the question: how would Cronkite have responded if it were another group also being treated harshly by the liberal TV networks during that period — Vietnam vets, Second Amendment proponents, or pro-lifers — just to name a few groups at random?
Eventually, we get our answer: In early 1988 during the Democrat primaries, Cronkite, by then having retired from hosting the nightly news but still very much on the CBS payroll, was boozing it up with Joe Klein, then with New York magazine, now with Time, and Jerry Brown, once and future California governor, at the Wayfarer Inn in Bedford, New Hampshire. The archetypal television newsman was “shit-faced,” according to Klein, when a woman interrupted his bacchanalia to ask, “Mr. Cronkite, don’t you agree with me that abortion is wrong? What do you think?”
Whereupon Cronkite, with a dismissive wave of the hand and ironic expression, uttered the unutterable in his mellifluous voice. “Kill them all,” he said. The woman gasped. Almost fainted on the spot. At loose ends as to how to respond to such a deplorable remark, she just walked away discombobulated. “That put an end to the haranguing,” Klein said. “I don’t know whether Walter meant it or it was just a ploy to get her to go. But we laughed hard.”
In vino veritas? (Which in Cronkite’s case would translate into “In Maker’s Mark, truth.”)
The Hand Job
Of course, “kill them all” is the tacit motto of numerous radical environmentalists. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published his infamous book The Population Bomb, one of the touchstones of what was called in the early 1970s, “Ecology.” By the end of the following year, Brinkley writes, “now that Neil Armstrong had walked on the Moon, Cronkite sensed that ecology would soon replace space exploration as the national obsession.” It certainly became, for a time, Cronkite’s obsession, often crowding out other more newsworthy stories during the critical year of 1970. At the beginning of the year, Cronkite jumped onboard the radical environmental movement wholeheartedly — “God damn it, we’ve got to get on this environmental story” — and as his producer Ron Bonn said at the time, “We wanted to grapple first with air pollution, the unbreathable air. But then we wanted to deal with the primary underlying problem, which was overpopulation.”
In April of that year, two days before the first “Earth Day” Cronkite began a regular series on the CBS Evening News portentously titled, “Can The World Be Saved?,” as the American left first began to dial up the volume of its eco-crankery to 11. To accompany those segments, Bonn created a backdrop consisting of the legendary photograph the astronauts of Apollo 8 took of planet earth, with his hand placed in front of the photo clutching the globe. “We were trying to show humanity squeezing the Earth to death,” according to Bonn.
Brinkley notes that this photo quickly became informally known as “The Hand Job” amongst the backstage production crew of Cronkite’s broadcast, much to its true-believer host’s chagrin. “We’ll need the hand job, tonight!” Which in retrospect, seems like the perfect description of the masturbatory nature of radical environmentalism. (Outside of Earth Day master of ceremonies Ira Einhorn deciding to implement his own version of population control by killing his girlfriend, of course.) Certainly, it’s a given that the more strident the rhetoric of a self-professed environmentalist, the bigger his carbon footprint.
Cronkite was no exception — a decade after declaring the earth’s ecology so fragile that he would ask if the planet could be “saved,” he thought nothing about hopping on the gas-guzzling supersonic Concorde to fly from Paris to the Middle East to cover the death of Anwar Sadat.
Similarly, in 1970, Brinkley writes that Cronkite believed that “the U.S. government needed to regulate polluting corporations and force them to prioritize environment over profit.” But Cronkite chose to commemorate the arrival of the year 1984 and its Orwellian implications by starring in a special for CBS and drafting a column for the New York Times in which he wrote:
“The total absence of privacy the idea that the government is (or may be) always watching, means, most of us would agree, the ultimate loss of freedom.” Without the implied method of force, how did Cronkite imagine government would regulate corporations “to prioritize environment over profit”?
It’s during this passage of Cronkite that Brinkley concocts a smear of his own, by writing:
Reading George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, published in 1949, had been a revelation for Cronkite. He was stunned by Orwell’s raw insights into both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. To Cronkite, the dystopian 1984 was prescient in showing that America’s civil liberties were being gutted by a right-wing agenda.
Gee, wait ‘til Brinkley discovers what Orwell’s Ingsoc stood for, let alone where national socialist Germany and the international socialist Soviet Union were on the ideological spectrum.
And as Joseph Epstein wrote in his review of Brinkley’s book in the September 2012 issue of Commentary (subscription may be necessary to read), Cronkite himself wrote an introduction to a paperback edition of 1984, in which he seemed to think that modernism itself was Orwell’s chief concern:
I read a preface Cronkite wrote to a paperback edition of George Orwell’s 1984, and discovered he thought that the target of the novel was not the brutal devastation of life, private and public, under totalitarianism, but chiefly the danger posed by the technology of modernity. “1984 is an anguished lament and a warning that vibrates powerfully when we may not be strong enough nor wise enough nor moral enough to cope with the kind of power we have learned to amass,” Cronkite wrote. Throughout this preface, the Soviet Union and China, whose governments treated their respective populations as conquered nations, go unmentioned.
As Epstein notes, Cronkite’s preface to Orwell’s epoch-defining novel was written in 1983, “and by then Cronkite had entered that phase of liberalism that finds no country more dangerous than one’s own.”
What James Piereson would call Cronkite’s punitive liberalism had developed slowly, as with many of his fellow leftists, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy by a deranged Marxist. Which makes it all the more frustrating that in addition to the above examples, throughout Brinkley’s book, he constantly praises Cronkite’s vaunted “objectivity,” despite the CBS anchorman’s eagerness to violate it whenever it suited the left’s causes. Or as Mark Steyn wrote in 2009 in an obit brilliantly comparing the CBS anchor to Michael Jackson, another then-recently deceased pop culture phenomenon, “he wasn’t that trustworthy, not when it mattered.”
One of the worst examples occurred in 1964, when Cronkite and then CBS newsman Daniel Schorr tag-teamed to attack Barry Goldwater, an especially egregious example of a smear, considering that TV of that era consisted almost solely of three national networks:
As managing editor of the CBS Evening News, Cronkite seemed to relish pricking Goldwater from time to time for sport. In late July, he introduced a report from CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr, a hard-and-fast liberal working from Munich. With an almost tongue-in-cheek smile, Cronkite said, “Whether or not Senator Goldwater wins the nomination, he is going places, the first place being Germany.” Schorr then went on a tear, saying, “It looks as though Senator Goldwater, if nominated, will be starting his campaign in Bavaria, the center of Germany’s right wing.” The backstory was merely that Goldwater had accepted an invitation from Lieutenant General William Quinn for a quick holiday at Berchtesgaden, a U.S. Army recreational center in Germany. But Schorr made the takeaway point that Berchtesgaden was once “Hitler’s stomping ground.” Goldwater, trying to show off his NATO bona fides, had granted an interview with Der Spiegel in which he mentioned a possible trip to Germany soon. Some Democratic opposition researcher floated the idea that Goldwater was infatuated with the Nazis. It was ugly stuff.
Indeed it was, and it was part of a pattern. A decade prior, during the 1952 GOP convention, as Brinkley notes, “Long before the Nixon administration bugged the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate in 1972, Cronkite, after much deliberation, had a CBS technician wire the committee room under the shady rationale that the covert act was good for democracy.” If Dan Rather thought he could get away with promulgating false documents to attack George W. Bush in 2004, well, consider the environment in which he worked for over 40 years. The big difference being that by 2004, Rather was but one voice among many, and had to answer — kicking and screaming all the way — to charges from bloggers and Internet message board contributors. In contrast, Cronkite’s entire career as anchorman took place in an environment which consisted of three television networks and one or two newspapers per city. As more and more Americans came to receive their information from the TV set, this gave Rather a near-monopoly status on the news.
This was not a healthy environment for the truth, to say the least. Nowhere was this more apparent than on February 27th 1968, when Cronkite declared the Vietnam war a “stalemate”:
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 the 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.
Cronkite then signed off, “This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”
Cronkite’s conclusion was of course a lie; America had won the Tet offensive, as Diana West noted in 2009, in the wake of Cronkite’s death at age 92:
Cronkite never clarified the record, never admitted that the Tet offensive — the Vietcong’s surprise holiday attack on cities across South Vietnam — resulted in a military and political fiasco for North Vietnam.
This was becoming apparent even before the dust had settled in 1968, as we learn in Peter Braestrup’s indispensable “The Big Story” (1977), one of the signal historical works of the 20th century, which meticulously analyzes the media’s failure to assess Tet correctly as a defeat for North Vietnam. Even Leftist journalist Frances Fitzgerald in her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fire in the Lake” (1972) reported that Tet had “seriously depleted” Vietcong forces and “wiped out” many of their “most experienced cadres,” noting that such losses drove “the southern movement for the first time into almost total dependency on the north.” Her conclusion: “By all the indices available to the American military, the Tet offensive was a major defeat for the enemy.”
And the enemy agreed. In a 1995 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Bui Tin, a member of the North Vietnamese general staff who in 1975 personally received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam, called North Vietnam’s losses in Tet “staggering.” Communist forces in the South, he explained, “were nearly wiped out by all the fighting in 1968. It took us until 1971 to re-establish our presence, but we had to use North Vietnamese troops as local guerillas. If the American forces had not begun to withdraw under Nixon in 1969,” he added, “they could have punished us severely.” And who knows? If Cronkite had not used Tet to nudge for negotiations, maybe American forces would not have begun to withdraw.
Bui Tin said North Vietnamese commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap told him Tet was “a military defeat though we had gained the planned political advantages when Johnson agreed to negotiate and did not run for re-election.”
Well, who could blame him? The president had “lost Cronkite.”
The Halberstam Connection
As with most American liberals, Cronkite initially supported the Vietnam war, but in 1968 he turned against it in his now infamous primetime broadcast of February 27th, in which he declared the war unwinnable. Brinkley credits his fellow leftwing journalist David Halberstam, then a New York Timesman in his early 30s, for turning Cronkite against the war. (Likely not coincidentally, Brinkley dedicated his book to both Halberstam and Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN, which represents a much more inclusive form of television journalism than Brinkley’s eponymous subject ever practiced.) When Halberstam died in a car accident at age 73 in 2007, Marvin Olasky wrote that it was Halberstam’s early declaration of the Q-word in Vietnam that caused a generation of journalists to look for a quagmire seemingly before a war they disapprove of begins, tossing aside any pretense of objectivity for an oikaphobic sneer in the process:
Halberstam was the first big-time journalist with whom I ever had dinner, in 1969 or 1970 when I was a college student. My fellow leftists and I venerated him for winning a Pulitzer Prize on the back of anti-Vietnam War reporting that had gained the ire of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. As William Prochnau, author of “Once Upon a Distant War,” later noted, Halberstam in his reporting of those he distrusted ”didn’t say, ‘You’re not telling me the truth.’ He said, ‘You’re lying.’”
We loved that — Halberstam wrote like a god — but four decades later, the epigone of Halberstamism is found in books like Al Franken’s “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.” Unlike some of his successors, Halberstam was a hardworking reporter who didn’t grab for sneering laughs, but his 1965 book about Vietnam, “The Making of a Quagmire,” has inspired journalists for four decades to look for a quagmire as soon as the first American soldiers set foot on sand.
Halberstam’s perceptiveness and blindness were both evident in an interview he gave to the San Jose Mercury News in 1993. He said he was worried about journalism’s future because “The public perceives us as being too powerful and too arrogant.” But he went on to state his version of the problem: “We give a jarring perception of reality to people.” Journalists knew reality, and people weren’t strong enough to handle the shrink-wrapped truth.
Did I say that journalists now invoke the Q-word “seemingly before a war they disapprove of begins?” By 2003, that was literally so in CNN’s case.
“If I’ve Lost Cronkite…”
Brinkley references the now boilerplate cliché among journalists that Lyndon Johnson responded to Cronkite’s February 27th Special Report on Tet by declaring: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” But as W. Joseph Campbell writes on his Media Myth Alert blog, an adjunct to his book Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, “Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House at the time, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.”
In another post, Campbell notes that “Johnson may have decided in 1967 or even earlier not to stand for reelection in 1968. He wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point: ‘Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement, I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.’”
And in a post specifically referencing Brinkley’s Cronkite biography, Campbell adds that it took a while for “the Cronkite Moment” to become accepted history. And once again, there’s a Halberstam connection — it was Halberstam who helped promote this myth, a decade after the fact, in his 1979 book The Powers That Be.
Like Cronkite’s own frequent lapses from his imagined “objectivity,” Brinkley’s leftwing biases appear throughout the book, to the point where, as Joseph Epstein wrote in his Commentary review, “Matters are not much helped by Professor Brinkley’s comfortable assumption that political liberalism and moral goodness are one and the same.” One of his subtle forms of biases is never capitalizing the words “Cold War,” despite its looming over all of Cronkite’s years as a CBS anchorman. However, Brinkley has no problem capitalizing other touchstone events of the period, such as “Freedom Summer” and (of course) “Red Scare.” Why the disparity?
There are also occasionally chronological errors — at one point, Brinkley writes that Cronkite was dining at the Stork Club when the tragic Apollo 1 fire near-instantly killed its crew in the midst of an otherwise routine preflight checkout on January 27, 1967. If Brinkley is referring to the legendary Manhattan watering hole founded by nightclub owner Sherman Billingsley, that club closed its doors in October of 1965. Later in the book, Brinkley writes, “Throughout 1994 and 1995, Cronkite grew discontented with how CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel interrupted broadcasts with ‘Breaking News’ flashes for silly items like an L.A. freeway chase or another Clinton sex allegation story.” But MSNBC and Fox News didn’t begin broadcasting until July and October of 1996, respectively.
To Brinkley’s credit, he notes that Cronkite wasn’t above a certain amount of graft: at some point in the early 1970s, Cronkite, then earning $250,000 a year, when the average annual US income was less than $9,000, “cut a deal with Pan Am airlines to fly the entire family to a series of international vacation spots,” presumably for free or at a deeply discounted rate. A decade or so later, Cronkite chose to join the board of Pan Am, despite the airline having contractual relationships with NASA and the Pentagon. As Brinkley asked, “How could Cronkite cover the space beat for CBS while serving on the board of a company that profited from the program? It was a clear conflict of interest. Accused of breaching journalistic ethics, Cronkite quit Pan Am to save his reputation.”
Late in his life, Cronkite allowed anyone willing to donate $10,000 to one of his approved charities dine with him at the 21 Club or the Four Seasons:
“This was Walter’s way of getting to pig out on gourmet food for free,” [Andy] Rooney said, laughing. “It was shameless. Not only would he never pick up a tab willingly, he had now also devised ways to get the best free meals in the world while getting credit for being charitable. That made him, in my eye, the Smartest Man in America.”
The Final Days
By the 1990s, Cronkite’s political worldview had descended into infantilism; he began to support such rococo causes as One World Government, and during a 1997 Discovery Channel hagiographic tribute called Cronkite Remembers, its titular star said on-air, “Fear of the Soviet Union taking over the world just seemed as likely to me as invaders from Mars.” Which isn’t exactly how Cronkite himself covered the Cold War while it was ongoing. As Brinkley noted earlier in his book, in 1962, the Pentagon produced a documentary with the following passage:
Called The Eagle’s Talon, the 1962 Pentagon propaganda film warned that “an aggressive Communist tide has spread in Europe and Asia to engulf its neighbors. Communist China even now has plans to dominate Asia by mass murder— destroying ancient civilizations.” The narrator for The Eagle’s Talon was none other than Walter Cronkite.
The 2000s were not kind to aging leftwing spokespersons; Bush Derangement Syndrome poisoned the last decade of the lives of Helen Thomas, Gore Vidal, and Kurt Vonnegut; Cronkite was no exception. Brinkley, of course, championed John Kerry in the 2004 election via Tour of the Duty, which the Weekly Standard described at the time as “his famously sycophantic biography” of the arch-leftist senator. Despite the 832-page length of his Cronkite biography, Brinkley leaves out one of Cronkite’s strangest moments before retiring as an elder spokesman for the legacy media he helped to shape, for both better and worse: his October 29, 2004 appearance on CNN’s Lary King Live. A videotape had just surfaced of Osama Bin Laden, and when King asked Cronkite his take, the latter man replied, “I’m a little inclined to think that Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, that he probably set up bin Laden to this thing.” He seemed to imply that Rove was keeping OBL on ice until needed, perhaps alongside Jim Morrison, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, and Judge Crater. Was he kidding? Was he serious? It was a deeply weird moment for a man once known for his avuncluar clarity.
If not always honesty. But then, as Brinkley wrote in his biography, Cronkite’s signature phrase, “And That’s The Way It Is,” was lift from a World War II dispatch by early Cronkite mentor and rival Edward R. Murrow. “Cronkite never gave Murrow proper credit for this,” Brinkley notes.