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 soulmates; 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.