As the world now knows, Walter Cronkite died today. I spent three days working with the legendary newsman at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, in the summer of 1987. I was an Air Force Reserve officer, on temporary duty at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Political/Military Affairs Division) and had been assigned to provide staff support for the war game which the JCS conducted with the Commanders-in-Chief of the major military commands that year. Mr. Cronkite was a media advisor to Department of Defense officials during the exercise.
In addition to testing the effectiveness of military strategies and tactics in a difficult war-fighting scenario, the exercise involves prominent journalists and former government officials who consult with the Defense Department to assess the ways in which press coverage of a similar military action might influence the public’s reaction to the conflict and by implication, alter national security policy. The simulated engagement is designed to ensure that everything which can go wrong, does go wrong, with the U.S. invariably losing the war. A hopeless scenario isn’t much fun but may be the best way to learn what will and won’t work.
My very modest role in this important event was to serve as the military liaison to Mr. Cronkite and other members of the panel. Despite his towering stature, I was prepared to dislike him. Tonight’s obituaries praise him for the evenhandedness with which he reported the news but I vividly recall my irritation at the bias which seemed so evident as I watched him anchor the CBS Evening News.
I would often grind my teeth during my 1968-69 tour in Vietnam as Mr. Cronkite told Americans that the war in which my friends and I were risking our lives was a terrible mistake and a lost cause. It does not boost troop morale when“The Most Trusted Man In America” is telling the nation that their war is utter folly. I disagreed with him then and do now but for three long days in the summer of 1987, I must admit that he impressed me with his humanity, his humility and his clarity of thought. I abhorred his politics but found myself admiring him both personally and professionally.
His manner was business-like but he occasionally revealed a subtle, clever sense of humor. I later read a story he apparently liked to tell about his elderly mother, Helen, who died in 1993 at the age of 101. “Well into her ’90s, Mrs. Cronkite was said to have dated like a schoolgirl and danced her way to happiness. Once, Walter called to ask how she was, and she replied, ‘Oh, I had the best time dancing last night. But I had to keep slapping my date.’ Dumb struck, Walter asked, ‘Was he getting fresh?’ ‘Oh, no,’ Helen Cronkite said, ‘he’s old. He kept passing out; I had to keep reviving him.’”
But it wasn’t just his sociability which made him so difficult to dislike. Even in Vietnam I also had to concede that he was a man of admirable courage. I recall his stand-ups being delivered from dangerously near serious firefights. I didn’t know then that this was not his first war. He had also covered the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge, some of the bloodiest engagements of World War II. I have read quotes from combat GIs expressing respect for Mr. Cronkite’s willingness to follow them into the thick of the fighting.
Also serving on our panel was Elliot Richardson, the only American to ever hold four presidential cabinet posts: Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and Secretary of Commerce. Secretary Richardson was among the first Army troops to land under fire on Utah Beach, at Normandy, on D-Day. He wasn’t reporting on the landing, he was fighting in it, and heroically at that. But on this panel, Walter Cronkite’s celebrity eclipsed even luminaries of Secretary Richardson’s prominence.
Yet Mr. Cronkite was a man of striking contradictions. Liberals call that “complexity.” Conservatives call it confusion. Though he was a functional pacifist in his opposition to military involvement in Southeast Asia and Iraq, no one could fairly question his valor. Notwithstanding his support for ratification of the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty (a flawed, world government measure which would have eroded American sovereignty), it would not have been reasonable todoubt his patriotism. He described himself as “a person of faith” and added that “I work very hard at being a Christian” but he made this profession of belief in a letter attacking the religious right on behalf of an organization (The Interfaith Alliance) whose members included atheists and agnostics. An angry attempt to silence Christian conservatives is a curious (but not uncommon) First Amendment philosophy for a journalist to whom freedom of speech should have been sacred. He was a lifelong Episcopalian who once considered entering the ministry but he didn’t think the religious left should also be pushed out of the public square. A website which tracks political contributions lists him as a generous donor to the NARAL Pro-Choice American PAC.
Vietnam veterans were sometimes denounced as “baby-killers” by the anti-war activists whose cause Mr. Cronkite championed but ironically, his support for abortion rights may have killed more babies than all the errant napalm strikes ever dropped in the war he so detested.
Walter Cronkite was a man who was universally revered by much of the Western World but in terms of public policy, he was the enemy of nearly all that I hold dear. He was dangerous precisely because his likability blinded so many Americans to the flaws in his misguided political philosophy. He recalls to mind our current president, who imperils the nation in very much the same way. Liberals complain that Ronald Reagan’s personal charm endeared him to swing voters whose political interests he consistently betrayed. They have a point about his charm if not his policies. But liberal or conservative, we should all be frightened by the percentage of the population which follows leaders whose emotional appeal trumps every other consideration.
I pray that Mr. Cronkite ultimately did find faith in Jesus and that tonight he rests in peace.