Thursday, January 19, 2006

History repeating

Walter Leland Cronkite Jr., 89 years young, has graciously offered to pinch-hit as anchor on the “CBS Evening News,” should they come calling in their endless hunt for a permanent anchor. Bob Schieffer’s been doing admirably well in the position pro tem, and the Tiffany folks have been drooling after Katie Couric for months; we’ll see where that goes.

But if dear Uncle Walter never plays another down of anchor-chair football, his greatest service in the era After Cronkite may be what he said recently, in a case of (possibly) history repeating itself.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena Calif., and responding to a question about American involvement in Iraq, Cronkite said, boldly, plainly, “it’s my belief that we should get out now.”

It was a reiteration of something he said in 2004, when he criticized the invasion of Iraq the year before, saying that the American people were no safer from terrorism because of the invasion. Now, in post-Katrina America, Cronkite brilliantly established a linkage between the first disaster and the second one, still playing itself out in New Orleans.

“We had an opportunity to say to the world and Iraqis after the hurricane disaster that Mother Nature has not treated us well and we find ourselves missing the amount of money it takes to help these poor people out of their homeless situation and rebuild some of our most important cities in the United States. Therefore, we are going to have to bring our troops home.”

You can quibble with his rationale for using a natural catastrophe at home as a way of extricating the nation from the manmade debacle of elective war. But there’s no escaping the connection of the nation’s sad response to Katrina and the money and manpower in Iraq lost to recovery efforts in Louisiana. And there’s no way around the historical parallels of this recent statement with one he made on Feb. 27, 1968, in the heat and height of the Vietnam War.

That night, at the end of a documentary made after a visit to Vietnam during the January Tet offensive, Cronkite said on the air that the war was unwinnable and that U.S. forces should get out. From the bully pulpit of a network anchor’s chair, Cronkite said the emperor was naked and accelerated the tide of public opinion against the war. That great unraveling took another five years, but Cronkite’s statement – a departure from journalism’s storied objectivity – made it plain that the end of public support, if not the conflict itself, was very much in sight.

In today’s multichannel crazyquilt of television news, it’s hard to imagine someone with that kind of avuncular gravitas, that kind of moral authority stepping forward and saying the same thing. Cronkite is one of the last living holdovers from the era when three broadcast networks dominated the airwaves, from a time when the national attention span was more focused.

But there’s no spin the administration can put on this case of history repeating. Cronkite’s statement in 1968 was a journalistic seismograph warning of the social earthquake to come. We may not be so subject to persuasion today, in 2006, but Cronkite’s more recent assessment weds us to the wisdom of his earlier one -- "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” -- and to another warning, that sobriquet by George Santayana …

You know the one ... about being doomed to repeat the lessons you didn’t learn the first time.

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