Inevitability does not dampen sadness and a sense of loss. It does not exactly dampen grief because grief has become a dead emotion in our society. Nobody cares enough of a damn about almost anyone or anything to go down into their souls and mourn the passing even of an era of giants. The only people this society seems to deem worthy of grief are entertainers.
So Walter Cronkite has gone, and if I do not grieve it was for me because he was a symbol more than a human being. His public presence and meaning transcended his life as a man. He was something special, yes. He meant journalistic integrity and a sense of human warmth even if you had no idea who lived behind the image on the screen.
Maybe he was the last of a generation that could grieve and take us with him. On November 22, 1963 I was a junior at Hunter College. The word came to us at 2 PM that John F. Kennedy had been shot. In those days we still believed in the magnetism and power of a President to make a difference. Thus the impact of the news was horrifying. When I got over to the Student Center, there were TVs in the lobby and cafeteria, and there was Walter Cronkite. He said he had confirmation that President John F. Kennedy had just died in Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas.
And then this happen: his voice stopped for a second. He removed his glasses. He wiped away tears. And then he got on with it.
Cronkite came to where we were because he’d been there too. He was old enough to have seen the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. But none of us could remember the last assassination, of William McKinley in 1901. So Walter Cronkite donned our shoes and we both trod together into an unknown country in which nothing would ever again be the same. And I think we all knew it.
Cronkite spoke truth to power. He was perhaps the first “mainstream” journalist to break the idiotic mold of objectivity and say to Lyndon Johnson and the rest of America that we could not win the war in Vietnam. And he was right. And President Johnson’s line about having lost Middle America because he lost Cronkite by now has been quoted half to death–except that Johnson was smart enough to know he was hearing prophecy and truth.
What was it about Cronkite? We believed him.
We never got the sense that here was a man spinning the news and lying to us in the name of an agenda. When the late photojournalist W. Eugene Smith wrote that he wished the word “objectivity” would disappear from the journalist’s lexicon, he foresaw–sadly and probably in unexpected ways–the successors to what now passes for journalism in this nation.
What do we have now? For in their whining and pugnacious attacks on the “state-run media,” what we have now are the shrill voices of Limbaugh, Levin, Malzberg, Ingraham, Hannity, and the worst of all traducers of truth and order, the walking psychotic episodes, Glenn Beck and Michael “Savage.” There is no balance. Who stands against this? Rachel Maddow is wonderful but she is one voice in a wilderness of post-Conservative spin.
Cronkite will turn over in his grave.
No longer do we believe in politicians as public servants. Since Kennedy, the parade of liars has been unbroken. The truth-tellers either were murdered or lost so badly they might just as well have stopped a bullet. Yes, JFK may have lied, too, but he gave us the image of truthfulness. Our politicians now don’t even try. The Bushes, father and son? Bill Clinton? Sorry, I voted for him, but Obama’s shell is starting to crack and the coalition of the willing is beginning to fray because he is most likely as big a double-dealer as any of his predecessors. Given recent history, he will need to prove he’s not.
Someone on the left will have to say all this. You cannot begin to descry truth with all the words come from the legion of pundits who play to the collective audience of white trash that live in some mythological heartland.
Cronkite respected Middle America. Today’s commentators have turned them into trash by leaving their drum-beating hatreds and prejudices untouched by reality, and by feeding them. Hardworking Americans become not ennobled but Dittoheads and a legion of morons intoning “Sean, you’re a great American.” No, he’s not, he’s a crowd-pleasing whore.
We won’t see Walter Cronkite’s like again. He wouldn’t be able to get a job on Fox News.