Historian Douglas Brinkley, in his new biography, “Cronkite,” writes that the "CBS Evening News" anchorman once suggested, in a private meeting with U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, that the former attorney general run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 as a means of bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
Encouraging RFK to run for president compelled Walter Cronkite to cross a major threshold — from being an impartial observer to a willing participant.
One can argue that Cronkite, in the position he held, should have never made such a suggestion.
But decades after the fact, does that mean Cronkite’s legacy, “as the most trusted man in America,” has been irreparably tarnished?
I’m not inclined to think so.
He went after politicians as much as he reported the news. Yes, he publicly shared his opposition to the Vietnam War on a national stage few could occupy, but he also did a more credible job than most in reporting the news accurately and fairly.
I remember watching him during the Tehran hostage crisis, when Iran imprisoned more than 50 U.S. diplomats for 444 days between November 1979 and January 1981.
Each night he tabulated the days the diplomats had been held, ticking them off one by one.
Was that an editorial? I think it was. Did it make the “CBS Evening News” less objective than The New York Times or Wall Street Journal? I don’t believe it did.
Had President Carter played his cards differently, he might have taken that daily count as his cue to take military action far sooner than he did. But he didn’t.
Unlike his successor, Dan Rather, Cronkite also knew a thing or two about sources. Cronkite, for example, would never made the same grievous error Rather committed, in September 2004, when he reported that former President George W. Bush was frequently absent during his time with the Texas Air National Guard.
Cronkite, for all his foibles, searched for the truth. He was not one to “get” a president, as it appears to be the case with Rather.
Indeed, Cronkite later told CBS CEO Les Moonves that he did the right thing in firing Rather and four CBS executives associated with the story, now referred to as “Memogate,” telling him, “… you had to do it for journalism, and for the CBS brand. I just want you to know you did the right thing. I’m proud of you.’”
For those who think a reexamination of Cronkite’s professionalism and objectivity is in order, keep this in mind:
This past weekend, Vice President Joe Biden held a party for members of the White House press corps.
So if anyone is going to hold Cronkite in contempt for talking with Bobby Kennedy and, on occasion, letting his politics show, then they might also condemn, perhaps even fire, those reporters who enjoyed Biden’s hospitality this past weekend.
And that’s the way it is.