Monday, December 10, 2007

Walter Cronkite, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and the Occupation of Iraq

I used to listen to Cronkite (every night) and Winfrey comes up more than a day late and a dollar short.

Marty Kaplan says that Oprah is to Iraq as Walter was to Vietnam:
. . . I watched Oprah Winfrey stump for Barack Obama this weekend . . . It's about reassuring the overwhelming majority of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq that they are, in fact, an overwhelming majority. It's also about giving courage or cover to every Democratic member of Congress . . . .

How do people know what other people think? The sad truth is that it doesn't come from talking to one another; it comes from the media.

. . . . no journalist can today occupy the place that Walter Cronkite did when, at the end of a CBS documentary about the 1968 Tet offensive, he said the U.S. was in a stalemate in Vietnam and should get out . . . . Bill Moyers, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert actually do tell the truth, and they mercilessly deconstruct the biases of "fair and balanced" faux news and fatuous "narrative" narratives, but their audience sizes limit their impact, and their matter is more than matched by Republican media anti-matter.

But Oprah -- well, in an age that has thoroughly blurred the boundary between news and entertainment, Oprah may actually be the twenty-first century's de facto national anchor. She really does channel -- and change -- Middle America.

. . . . Oprah's audience will take from this the message that their own opposition to the war isn't a betrayal of the troops, as the Republicans claim; isn't giving comfort to the terrorists, as the administration asserts; isn't moral cowardice, as the Right's bile-spewing whiner intelligentsia insists. And maybe the message that current and aspiring members of Congress will take from Oprah's unembarrassed anti-war message is that it's not political suicide to stand with the decisive majority of the American people, that being called bad names by your opponents will not kill you. . . .

If Oprah can feel it and think it and say it, then you can feel it and think it and say it. What's not in question is the message to Democratic politicians, especially incumbents, still weaseling on Iraq: If you've lost Oprah, you've lost Middle America.
I concede that Kaplan makes some strong and eloquent points here. No Doubt. But let me review the historical antecedents involved here.

In the wake of his visit to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite concluded his 27-Feb-1968 broadcast with his famous and unusually personal Report from Vietnam:
. . . we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective.

Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there . . it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds . . . it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . .

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. . . . But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
Cronkite had been either neutral or pro-war before he was against it. But with this single and unique (for him) editorial, this peerless broadcast journalist opened an immense credibility cap for Lyndon Baines Johnson who immediately reacted by turning to his aides and saying,
If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America.
LBJ knew at that moment he would have to change course. A month later Johnson declined to run for reelection and announced that he was seeking a way out of the war. David Halberstam wrote that this "was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman."

Against this Cronkite standard, how does Oprah's out-of-the-closet anti-war endorsement of Barack Obama measure up?
  • Oprah's conversion is late. Winfrey was pro-Iraq invasion and occupation before she was against it. She has arrived late to an anti-war position. As a matter of fact, coming out of the closet last Saturday, she is 62 months later than then State Senator Obama (Oct'02), who was publicly against the invasion before it was launched. Compare Cronkite and Winfrey statements relative to LBJ's and GWB's 2nd-term elections (1968 and 2004): Cronkite's editorial was delivered 8+ months before LBJ's re-election and Winfrey's coming-out followed GWB's re-election by 37½. Assuming Winfrey's opinion-molding influence was on a par with Cronkite's, how much would have her more timely conversion saved our country and the world in terms of unnecessary blood, treasure and delay in national redemption?

  • Cronkite and Winfrey had/have different audiences. In 1964, Cronkite was the TV anchor of record. He was peerless in terms of delivering an objective and authoritative version of the day's news, sort of what we are supposedly treated to by Jim Lehrer and the PBS News Hour currently. His audience tuned in because they were stakeholders in the consequences (economic and political) of the current events of the day. As such, they were voters. Winfrey's audience, I would wager, are significantly less likely to be voters. Cronkite's viewers were policy wonks; Winfrey's day-time listeners are a different kind of junky, pursuing a little encouragement and information about weight loss, stress, fashion, etc.

  • Cronkite addressed the fortunes of a war effort and his remarks had consequences for a sitting (and conscientious) President; Winfrey is primarily addressing the fortunes of a favored presidential candidate who might force an early end of our current Iraq war occupation.
Don't get me wrong. I am glad that Oprah Winfrey is endorsing my favored candidate. She brings incredible heat to any table she draws her chair up to, as the You-Tubes from the past weekend attest. I have to cop to having had her pull me to my feet in front of my C-Span with her Miss Jane Pittman routine.

Winfrey reflects on the Ernest Gaines novel which later became an iconic, Emmy Award-winning movie, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," (a story of a woman born into slavery who lived to see the day when she could drink in the "Whites Only" fountain in a segregated town). Winfrey recalled actress Cicely Tyson's performance:
When Miss Jane Pittman would encounter young people throughout that film, she would ask, 'Are you the one?’ I remember her standing in the doorway, her body bent, frail, old, holding the baby in her arms, saying, 'Are you the one, Jimmy? Are you the one?'

I believe in '08, I have found the answer to this question. It is the same question that our nation is asking: Are you the one? Are you the one?

I am here to tell you, Iowa, he is the one.
Deep down, I get Oprah Winfrey. Neither of us are single-issue voters. If we were only voting for peace, we would be pushing for Senator Gravel, Representative Kucinich or the pandering governor from New Mexico. Both of us see more is at stake in the 2008 election than filling in the latrine of mass graves Bush has left us Americans in Mesopotamia. If Oprah can prevent Hillary Clinton from playing Richard Nixon to George Bush's LBJ, more power to her. She may have missed or fallen short of her Walter Cronkite moment. But Oprah Winfrey is right on the one key point.

Now is the time.


  1. Here's a minority, revisionist perspective:

    By the fall of 1967, polls were already showing a majority of Americans expressing the opinion that it had been a "mistake" to get involved in Vietnam; and by the time of Cronkite's broadcast, two successive secretaries of Defense had concluded that the war could not be won at reasonable cost. Indeed, with the major changes in television's portrayal of the war still to come, television was probably more a follower than a leader in the nation's change of course in Vietnam.

  2. vigilante, I'm so glad to see you back in fine form.

    You're right, Oprah isn't Walter Conkite. But this isn't the 1960's and Iraq isn't Viet Nam.

    Today we really live in one world (as much as conservatives and religious fundamentalists try to fight it), connected by instant communication and nearly instant transport.

    Simply packing up the last helicopter and flying away from Iraq isn't an option that even Barack Obama will take.

  3. I agree with the wizard. I agree with every word. I remember listening to Walter Cronkite every night on the CBS Evening News and there is absolutely no comparison between he and Oprah. One is a statesman, and the other a showman (or woman if you prefer).

    P.S. Today's lead picture on my blog is just for you Vigil.

  4. Wow, you sure hit that one outta the park, bum shoulder and all.

    I was 10 at the time of that Cronkite commentary, but I had two older brothers who were sweating the draft, so I was as aware as a 10 year old could be.

    As to Oprah, I'm more happy about her sticking a wrench in Hillarys spokes than her endorsing Obama.

    Kucinich '08

  5. All ye need to know:

    The three leading Democratic presidential candidates refused on Wednesday night to promise that they would withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of their first term, saying in a televised debate here that they could not predict the future challenges in Iraq.

    The rest is theater.

  6. Oprah Winfrey ABC News' Diane Sawyer:

    "I've always said this, that my being in support of Barack Obama is not my being against Hillary Clinton or anybody else. It's just that for this moment in time, this is what I know I am supposed to be doing. I feel compelled to do this. So my vote for is not a vote against anybody. It's just a vote for.

    Well obviously, Obama's great because I'm believing that the person that I'm speaking up for is gonna take it all the way. And then if that doesn't happen, I might readjust my thinking."


    As always, M.D. makes an excellent point to which I'll just make a couple (maybe more!) of responses.

    (1) To me, who a candidate is always out-shouts what he says. Quixotically perhaps, I've always discounted what a candidate promises (panders) as something said to get other people's vote.

    (2) Single-issue voting is a bad strategy. For example, take Quemoy-Matsu. Q-M seemed at one point in the 1960 presidential sweepstakes as the divining issue separating Nixon from JFK. But any voter preoccupied with Q-M in Oct 1960 had a 50-50 chance of making the wrong decision of Kennedy vs. Nixon. I'd have to Google Q-M today, to remember what it was all about.

    (3) At this point, we are headed in the wrong direction, in my opinion: looking at an unnecessary, costly, restless and endless occupation of Iraq. Because of Busheney, we Americans are so deep in so many different toilets, we need another JFK or RFK to lead us out. I'm willing to look under and overlook every stone of pandering promises of every candidate in the hopes of finding "The One".

    (4) My primitive rage about what has happened to our once-great nation in the last seven years still runs quiet and deep. My vindicative appetite and thirst for repudiation of Busheney makes me want to nominate the one candidate who is most likely to wreak upon the GOP the greatest landsliding, tsunami-scaled electoral burial in American political history. But, in the quiet times, I find myself receptive when I hear Obama say something like this.

    Anytime anyone wants to tell me BHO is not the one, I will listen.

  8. Vigilante. I like Obama, I really do. I'm glad Oprah is boosting him because it means there might be a fresh face in the White House. That would be great.

    Might he get us out of Iraq? I very much hope so, but I doubt it.

  9. Cronkite's viewers were policy wonks;...
    I have to disagree with that assessment. Although I was young I've always read that Cronkite viewers were everyday men and women making due to with only three major networks. Their wonkishness, if any, was mainly due to wanting to be informed citizens as compared to many now whose biggest concern falls more along the line of entertainment journalism.

    As for Oprah cut the girl some slack and don't look a gift house in the mouth. No, she ain't Cronkite but she was never meant to be. But we all have our roles to fill. I just hope she has the juice to help Obama

  10. Vigilante:

    If your goal is to create the biggest landslide in history next November, are you looking for the best candidate who can best marginalize the GOP? Wouldn't that be the moderate and triangulating H. Clinton rather than the polarizing John Edwards?

  11. Beachcomber, who can more easily win in your state next November? Edwards or Obama?

  12. M.D., I meant to point out in my comment above how correct your earlier remark about 'theater' was.

  13. Coop poses an interesting question. Actually two questions:

    1) Is it better to marginalize the GOP or polarize the electorate?

    That's easier - maybe - than #2:

    2) Which Democrats are the marginalizers and which are the polarizers?

    No GOP answers are to be accepted.

  14. db: I've haven't seen the latest poll but the last one I saw had Edwards a distant third behind Hill then Obama. Of the two you mentioned Hill, seems the winner but if Oprah has the juice with the large African-American community Obama will win easily. I tried to go to the Obama rally last Sunday but the line went on forever and I had my daughter with me. The crowd was mostly African-American so I'm encouraged.

  15. Maybe the Clintons are polarizing. But then, so were the Roosevelts. Both marginalization and polarization are possible.