At the end of the broadcast, Cronkite said, "For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate."
After the broadcast, LBJ was quoted as saying. "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America."
February 27, 1968: CBS evening news
Fast forward to the week of November 14th, 2005 -- a week when the United States Senate issued a strong resolution calling on the Administration to begin facing facts about the war in Iraq; when Nebraska's senior senator, Republican Chuck Hagel, delivered a major policy address to the Council on Foreign Relations that contained bluntly critical remarks about the Administration's policy and overall performance; and when Pennsylvania Congressman John Patrick Murtha, delivered a riveting, emotional speech, which may just be remembered as the "Cronkite moment, circa 2005."
November 19, 2005
LBJ got it right about Walter Cronkite and middle America, and wrong about the Vietnam War. Cronkite’s remarks led President Johnson to the realization that his capacity to govern had been deeply, perhaps irretrievably, eroded by the course of the war.
George W. Bush and Richard Cheney have it wrong about middle America, and despite what they and others may believe about the course of the war in Iraq, their capacity to govern is in peril equal to or greater than LBJ’s predicament nearly forty years ago. Their failure to understand that borders on an impeachable offense.
Governing gives wide berth to those who govern, but when they lose the sense of the governed, they lose their legitimacy and cede their capacity to govern.
This week, an unlikely successor to Walter Cronkite -- Representative John Patrick Murtha -- surfaced from amongst the growing chorus of Congressional critics, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Murtha is a 73 year-old Democrat from Westmoreland County, which is in the heart of Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional district, in the southwestern most part of the state. He’s a 30-year member of the House with 37 years of service in the Marine Corps, including battle experience in Vietnam, where he was thrice decorated. Highly respected on both sides of the aisle, former Chairman and now ranking member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, who voted for both wars against Iraq, John Murtha is a no-nonsense Congressman with a reputation for hard work and clear thinking on defense issues.
Murtha was an unlikely candidate to mount a frontal attack on the war and the Administration’s management of the American presence in Iraq, and it’s precisely for that reason that his remarks have had such resonance.
He’s been a frequent visitor to Iraq, where he mingles with the troops, a familiar face at the National Naval Medical Center and the Walter Reed Army Hospital Center, and has close relationships with many members of the officer corps. Some believe that he may be speaking for the “silent majority” in uniform.
Here’s how Murtha began his remarks on Thursday, November 17th:
“The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of us. The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf Region.”
Murtha may or may not have it right about Iraq – that’s arguable -- but he has it right about the policy, the American people, the condition of our military forces, and the conduct of the Administration that has bungled virtually every single element of the war and its aftermath.
Two days prior to Murtha’s speech, Nebraska’s senior senator, Republican Chuck Hagel, also a decorated Vietnam veteran, addressed the Council on Foreign Relations on the same subject, and had this to say about the role of Congress in the conduct of America’s wars:
“Vietnam was a national tragedy partly because Members of Congress failed their country, remained silent and lacked the courage to challenge the Administrations in power until it was too late. Some of us who went through that nightmare have an obligation to the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam to not let that happen again. To question your government is not unpatriotic – to not question your government is unpatriotic. American owes its men and women in uniform a policy worthy of their sacrifices.”
And on that same day, the Ides of November, the Senate passed a resolution – by a vote of 79-19 -- calling on the Administration to pay heed to the rising public outcry about the war, to be more responsive to Congress, and to begin thinking about “end dates” for America’s military presence in Iraq.
The resolution established 2006 as "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty . . . thereby creating the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq." It also required the White House to submit to Congress an unclassified report every 90 days detailing U.S. policy and military operations.
The Senate resolution falls short of Murtha’s prescription, but taken together, these messages to the President, his Vice President, Secretaries of Defense and State, and others in the Administration should be abundantly clear: the country has seen enough death, dismemberment, destruction, and division; it has tired of the empty rhetorical pleas to “stay the course” and the inexcusable personal attacks on the patriotism of those politicians who, as Senator Hagel -- and President Theodore Roosevelt, nearly 100 years ago – remind us have both a right and responsibility to speak out when the facts cry out.
Sending out the President’s spokesperson to liken Murtha to Michael Moore is tragicomic. And just yesterday afternoon, the American Enterprise Institute sent out invitations to attend a speech by Vice President Cheney on Monday the 21st entitled: “The War in Iraq and the War on Terror.”
Let us hope that Mr. Cheney has the good sense and sense of decency to get through his speech without impugning the motives or the morals of those who see the facts and outcomes through a different set of lenses.
Final thought for now, which comes from Lyndon Johnson’s March 31st, 1968 speech to the nation just thirty-three days after Walter Cronkite’s observation about the war.
Most Americans who recall the speech, remember it best for these twenty-one words:
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.
But its most profound relevance for today may be found earlier in the speech where he says this:
For 37 years in the service of our Nation, first as a Congressman, as a Senator, and as Vice President, and now as your President, I have put the unity of the people first. I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship.
And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.
There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples.
I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.
With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office--the Presidency of your country.
Might be a good model for Vice President Cheney’s speech on Monday, and for a national address that President Bush should give sometime before the year’s end. If it is within either of these men to find the courage and humility to admit their errors and to embrace the virtues contained in Lyndon Johnson’s peroration, now would be the time.
For time is running out on America in Iraq, just as it is running down for this President with middle America.