I grew up watching Walter Cronkite. He was a fixture on the TV in my household and, in our little world, had a great deal of credibility. Had he died 20 years ago, I would have mourned him sincerely as the passing of a childhood icon. I know better now, though.
While I send my sincere condolences to Cronkite’s family and friends — those who actually knew and loved the man — I can’t be bothered to get very excited about his death. He is, after all, the person who, single-handedly, through a combination of hubris and ignorance, damaged America in ways that still resonate almost forty years after the fact. From John Podhoretz:
Cronkite was a key figure in many ways, but foremost among them, perhaps, was the fact that he cleared the way for the mainstream media and the Establishment to join what Lionel Trilling called “the adversary culture.” Cronkite, the gravelly voice of accepted American wisdom, whose comportment suggested he kept his money in bonds and would never even have considered exceeding the speed limit, devastated President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive by declaring that the United States “was mired in stalemate” in Vietnam—when Johnson knew that Tet had been a military triumph.
This on-air editorial, spoken during the most-watched newscast in the country when that meant 30 million people were watching (as opposed to 7 million today, with the nation having added more than 100 million in population), was a transformational moment in American history.
“If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson was reputed to have said, “I’ve lost middle America,” and shortly thereafter he announced he would not run for reelection. This was a mark of Johnson’s own poor political instincts—a president who thought a rich and powerful anchorman living the high life in New York city was the voice of the silent majority was a man out of touch with reality—but it was a leading indicator of how the media were changing. Cronkite didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to Tet, as the late Peter Braestrup demonstrated in his colossal expose of the scandalous media coverage of the battle, Big Story. But he knew that among the people who mattered to him, and who were the leading edge of ideological fashion, Tet was a failure because the war in Vietnam was bad, and he took to the airwaves to say so.