Still Tacking Through Politics - Trusty Walter Cronkite at Age 90

By MIKE SECCOMBE

Almost 40 years ago, after a careful assessment of the state of the Viet Nam war, Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial on CBS, saying it was time for a negotiated withdrawal.

President Lyndon Johnson, in response, was famously quoted as saying: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Five weeks later, the President announced he would not run for reelection.

If he were still an anchorman, Mr. Cronkite would have delivered a similar editorial long before now about the Iraq war.

"I'd be as strong as I was in the other war. We ought to be out of there. I've being saying that practically since that war began, since we invaded. I don't think we should be there," he said.

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Walter Cronkite is 90 now and sitting in the front room of his house overlooking the Edgartown inner harbor. It's a pulpit of much less influence than the desk at CBS, but he is apparently no less prepared than he ever was to express an opinion on the state of things. The number one thing, of course, being the President and his war.

There's not much chance, he concedes, of George Bush registering his words and responding: "I've lost Walter Cronkite, it's time I quit."

The question is, could anyone in the media wield that kind of influence today?

"No, because there's not another me out there," said Mr. Cronkite.

He paused for the expected laugh, but many would argue that it's true, that in today's fractured media world, with so many outlets producing so much strident opinion, the view of no single commentator carries such weight as Mr. Cronkite's did. When he occupied the anchorman's chair, he was the most trusted man in America. Poll-proven as such. There doesn't seem to be much trust about these days for the media, or for those in public life in general.

Nonetheless, he said, "There are a lot of journalists out there today, who if they chose to take that strong stand and course would probably enjoy a similar result.

"I am a little disappointed there were not more of my brethren in the press saying out loud [what they] should have been saying for a long time: We don't belong in the war we are pursuing."

As for what has happened to trust in those in public life: "I think that the trust of the people has to begin with the President of the United States.

"And after his performance, there is bound to be a lot of doubt. The fact is he has changed the entire attitude of people toward the United States itself. Also more American citizens . . . have considerable doubt about the integrity of the government."

Take that, President Bush. Mr. Cronkite might be 90 and in retirement and on the Vineyard for summer, but he can still deliver an editorial. He doesn't hear so well, but the famous voice, the trademark mustache (reportedly first grown fifty years ago to make him look younger), are still there. So is a certain considered delivery of his views that gives them a believable weight. And a bit of wry wit.

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Asked to compare the media scene now with his day, he quipped: "It being my choice of course when my day was."

Seriously, though, he thinks the press now is doing "a very good job".

But he wanted to make clear that he used the word press in its original sense, referring to newspapers, not lumped in with magazines and television and other media sometimes included as press.

"The print press - with some of course, notorious exceptions - is presenting well-prepared copy each day. It is at about the same level, I think, of substantial journalism [as ever]. The press stands alone."

Other media, he said, are not doing so well. The particular problem is television, which he said appeared "somewhat confused" about programs "presenting what is said to be the news."

Mr. Cronkite once confessed a feeling of liberation after leaving that television life. It gave him a chance to be more opinionated, and he clearly still enjoys being opinionated. If only more people had opinions - real informed opinions on issues, rather than viewing politics as "a contest that is more to be watched as a game than for the seriousness of it," he said.

Is he getting more opinionated? "Being opinionated has a lot of parents," he said. "And one of the bright ones to my mind is the fact that you don't have to answer to anybody.

"I don't think there's any doubt that I'm a liberal. I am not ashamed of that, I have no problem defending it and I wish I could impose upon more people my concepts of liberalism and perhaps be a little more active in the running of our country, in the sense of electing the right people in there."

Liberalism - which has come to be a term of derision in some quarters - is to him simply a matter of taking the broad view and working with other opinions. The liberal, he said, seeks to understand all aspects of a situation rather than pursue a single-minded goal.

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"And I think we are a seriously split nation by this administration, which is certainly not liberal. It's operating only by its own concepts of what is right and wrong," he said.

Change will come at the next election, he predicts. But how to heal that split in the country? While power does not have to be polarizing, the likelihood always exists that it will be, he said. For that reason he will withhold judgment on Democrats promising a new era of consensus.

"Before you could judge the talk you would have to see it in action," he said.

But he said the coming contest is essential to the future health of the country. "I hope the electorate, the people will take seriously these days of contest, deciding who will run the country. Nothing could be more important," he said.

As for who he prefers to be the next President, he said: "I'll make up my mind after we know who will be up for the call. We don't know that yet. I have favorites of course, but I don't think I'll name them for you, because I may want to make a speech somewhere, sometime, and maybe they'll even be willing to pay me for it."

Meanwhile there are other things to focus on. Like sailing, for example.

He would get a lot more sailing in, he mock-complained, if people stopped coming around wanting to talk to him, detracting from his enjoyment of the Island where he has been coming for some 40 years.

"I drive around all the time. I go out to do a mission that takes 15 minutes and I'm away half a day, because I'll just begin driving, just to look at it again," he said, adding:

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"It's extraordinary. All the wonders of this Island. Each day you can find something new here, or maybe you've seen it 50 times, but that particular day the lighting makes it a whole new scene for you . . . . I don't know of any place quite like it, and I've traveled a great deal around the world and this nation of ours. This is unique."

Surely no one would blame a man, after all those decades of achievement and hard work, if that's all he wanted to do now - sail and take in the scenery. But is it possible that he still has anything on his to-do list?

"I would like to be doing more of what I did before," Mr. Cronkite said.

"I've retired from . . . the best job that a man could have. But if somebody said, ‘We know you're getting to be an old man, but we could use you. Would you like to come into the evening news as an editor?' My God I'd be there before I could get a taxi."