To me, Walter Cronkite's life was this amazing rollercoaster ride, alternated between reporting on the most inspiring things humanity is capable of doing (such as landing on the Moon) to the most horrific (such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy). The whole country may have lived through these ups and downs, but -- by being as close to all of these events as he was -- I believe Walter somehow felt the totality of the American experience deeper than any person alive at the time. To borrow from You Are There -- the name of the TV Show he hosted from 1953 to 1957 -- Walter "really was there". It's in part because of how direct his experience was that I believe Walter Cronkite came to be called The Most Trusted Man In America.
Walter's powers of observation -- honed over those many years of personal, direct experience -- is why he was able to return from Vietnam and tell the American people that it was time for us to stop fighting and leave, even though we couldn't declare victory before doing so.
As with Dorothy when the curtain was pulled back exposing who The Wizard of Oz really was (or as with Neo after swallowing the red pill Morpheus gave him), Walter saw the objective reality - the reality free from the "spin zone" employed by those who would prefer we not see what's really going on.
And because his loyalty was to his country (not to any individual, including -- in the case of Vietnam War -- President Lyndon Johnson), Walter was compelled to communicate what he saw to us all.
If Walter Cronkite were alive today, I wonder what he would say to us... as he looked out over the landscape of another war that can't be won.
"What war are you thinking about now, Walter?" you might ask him, if he were with us today. "The War in Afghanistan?"
"No," would, I think, be his reply. "I'm referring to the war right here in America."
"The Cultural War... which is really just The Civil War, which I don't believe ended in President Lincoln's time...
"This war -- which is tearing America apart in every way possible short of people taking up guns in the streets -- is the most critical challenge we face today. Not heath care reform. Not ending our addiction to oil. Not preventing our infrastructure from collapsing beneath us. This war is preventing us from solving any of those other problems in an effective way. Like some untreated disease, it has seeped into the very fiber of our being... infecting all of our actions as a body politic..."
"If you had told Abraham Lincoln that the first Black man elected President of the United States -- and one from a fatherless household no less -- would be so demonized by the opposition that children would be prevented from hearing him speak to them about the importance of staying in school..."
"If you had told Abraham Lincoln that this same President of the United States would be challenged on whether or not he is an American citizen by a commentator broadcasting -- not on some fringe network -- but on the cable channel that pioneered giving Americans the news 24 hours a day..."
"And if you had told him that - in the interest of presenting both sides of an issue - most news shows would fail in their primary duty to label lies and falsehoods for what they are so as to sweep them off the table from the public's efforts at being 'informed citizens'..."
"I think he would have held his head in anguish at what had happened to the nation which he gave his life trying to preserve..."
"For the truth is that we are still a house divided... and one that is perilously close to collapsing right now..."
"Yet, the larger truth... the hidden truth... the truth like the one I told to the American people about the Vietnam War on February 27, 1968... is that this war between the extremes in American society can never be won... and should no longer be fought! Too many people of good conscience -- on both sides -- are dying. And others are being driven out of their desire to perform public service... or refusing to offer to do so at all, because of the consequences of having their private, personal lives exposed for all to see..."
"Like with the Vietnam War, we have one side that thinks it can impose its ideology on another... forgetting that the human spirit will resist any attempt at doing that, even when held captive year after year. Just ask Senator John McCain. He'll tell you this is true..."
"But there's another lesson -- another 'hidden truth' -- to be learned from Vietnam... from the Vietnam of today, which I encourage you to see. That lesson is that - having been freed from the forces of destruction which war naturally brings to a society - the Vietnam of today is proceeding to build an economy that can sustain it at a higher standard of living than it ever experienced when foreign influences tried to dictate its fate..."
"Some of you here today may even be wearing clothing that says 'Made in Vietnam' on the label..."
"It is possible for people who were once at war to live in peace... and to prosper greatly as a result of doing so. The benefits of peace -- both of the heart and of the wallet -- are the hidden truth I would like you to see today... the truth I hope will motivate you to support this man who is the president of all the people, because that's how the Founding Fathers intended our system to work..."
"The key to gaining access to this truth is to give up trying to impose your beliefs on each other... and, instead, focus on what beliefs you have in common. Because from what you have in common, you can build 'common ground', both spiritual and financial..."
"And regarding what you do not have in common, you can take a page from what our Founding Fathers were thinking, when they built our country on the basis of certain God-given rights and certain foundational principles...
"There was a reason why the Founding Fathers wrote - as the last line in the Declaration of Independence - 'And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.'..."
"That reason is, I believe, that they knew our First Principle had to be that we would always look to stand together as one nation. They knew there would be disagreements between us. After all, there were disagreements between them! But they also knew that we had to keep those disagreements in proper context... that we had to be mindful enough to pull ourselves back from the brink if any of those disagreements threatened the very fabric of our nation..."
"That First Principle failed when The Civil War broke out. And as I've said already, that war seems to be ongoing today -- minus the massive amounts of bloodshed, although there is still some of that as well..."
"But by electing the first Black man as President of the United States, I believe the American people have said to themselves -- and to their elected representatives! -- that they are ready to walk down the final road towards reconciling those differences... towards healing the pain and guilt from the injustice of how this great nation was built, in part, on a foundation of slavery and of treating those who were here before us as if they had few rights of their own... towards finally reaching the "promised land' of equality... of all people being equal in the eyes of their creator..."
"And that's the way it really is, on this 9th day of September, 2009. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night."
And that's what I think Walter Cronkite would say to us, if he was here today.
I invite you to watch this wonderful video from CBS News that honors Walter Cronkite for telling the American people the truth about the Vietnam War:
And on a personal note...
I want to thank Arianna for inviting me to the book launch party for "On Becoming Fearless" in September of 2006. Because at that party I was honored to meet Walter Cronkite for the first time. And thanks to Walter's friendship with Sir Arthur C. Clarke (and my support of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation), I had the great pleasure of hearing Walter talk about that friendship and their work together covering the space program, as part of Walter being honored by the Clarke Foundation later that same year.