Monday, 20 July 2009


Black boy in Chicago
Playing in the street
Not near enough to wear
Not near enough to eat
But don't you know he saw it
On that July afternoon
He saw a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

 -'Armstrong' by John Stewart

The fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11 is bittersweet. On one hand, we celebrate the amazing feat America accomplished by making John Kennedy's promise that we would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade come true. As my friend Michael Goldfarb suggested in a BBC essay recently, how many other politicians' promises, of a positive nature, can you remember being fulfilled in such spectacular fashion? When we look back at those astronauts, at those crew-cut guys in mission control with their slide-rulers and punch cards, and realise what they actually accomplished, it makes you wonder why the billions we pour into technology today seems to be directed at smaller and smaller ways of keeping people watching screens instead of doing anything.

Of course, most of that technological cash was diverted to the space programme for military reasons, as well as the effort to regain US prestige. It strikes me as deeply ironic that the whole 'Star Wars' programme so beloved of the Reaganauts and neo-cons devoted to military pork, is exactly the stuff we feared the Russians were going to do to us with their Sputniks back in the 1950s. It's not so much we become what we fear, as that we have consistently, throughout the Post-War era, attributed to our 'enemies' all the qualities and aims, methods and motivations that were driving our own dark sides; this is the Jungian theory of the shadow, and it definitely knows what evil lurks.

It's also amazing to recall just how positively news of the moon landing was received all around the world, at the same time the US was deeply unpopular in much of that world for the way it was waging the Vietnam war. In that sense, the successes of the space programme in the immediate aftermath of Apollo might be seen as a very expensive circus, distracting the public from the even more expensive slaughter that was going on in Southeast Asia.

That's the sort of context that, in retrospect, I never felt at the time, not even when people (not least Tom Lehrer, see here) pointed out the space programme was the Dr Strangelovian step-child of a Nazi scientist whose previous rockets had made it only across the North Sea, from Germany to England. That July evening, I was able to put aside those thoughts to simply celebrate a unique small step. That America was self-evidently the greatest country on earth, that our 'can-do' spirit had made the impossible possible, struck me as further evidence that we were caught helplessly in the schizophrenic madness of our leadership. But it did, and does, make me proud of what my country could achieve, not so much if we put our minds to it, but if we put our hearts in the right places.

It was ironic that Walter Cronkite, struck speechless by the sight of a man on the moon, should have died during this anniversary, since it was his voice that Americans would associate with the landing almost as much as Armstrong's (and remember Col. John 'Shorty' Powers—the last military spokesman we liked or trusted?--that's him between John Glenn and Alan Shepard). Cronkite anchored most of the 30 hours of CBS's coverage, with Wally Schirra beside him for the landing. As Spiro Agnew said, famously, when asked for a comment, 'if Cronkite was speechless, what can I say?'

I was struck by the ill-feeling toward Cronkite in a couple of the obituaries I read—one blamed him for Rupert Murdoch's Fox News in some bizarre twist of retribution towards those about whom we aren't supposed to be speaking ill. It somehow sought to attack Cronkite for not being more than what he was--a skilled reporter who approached the CBS Evening News the same way he had approached working for United Press: as a way of bringing important news concisely and accurately to people who depended on it as their main news source--and refused to credit that work with being useful. The battle between the news agencies meant local papers in America were supplied with lots of foreign news in those days, a far cry from the present. And Cronkite, as an overseas reporter turned news reader, used his position as 'managing editor' of the Evening News to make sure the world got covered. That this appealed to audiences in ways the modern focus-group selected Kens and Barbies don't should be obvious from the way the mantle was passed, eventually, from Cronkite to ABC's Peter Jennings, the last of the anchors to have been a working overseas reporter.

But Cronkite was also the voice and face of reassurance; he did inspire trust. I was disappointed by the BBC, who in their notice ran the opening of the Evening News followed by Cronkite's announcement of JFK's death, as if that announcement had been the lead item on a newscast, rather than a 'flash' stuck into the afternoon programming, where the emotion that Cronkite fights hard to repress ultimately becomes evident on his face. In that instant, all reassurance was gone.

None of the obits I read made much of the programmes Cronkite hosted before taking over CBS Evening News--'You Are There', which 'sent' reporters to historical events, and more importantly, The Twentieth Century, whose documentaries covered the world, and the world of ideas (and, with one episode, 'The Violent World Of Sam Huff', did almost as much to boost the NFL into popularity as the 1958 title game had). The Twentieth Century had a relatively liberal outlook, though it was tempered considerably by its sponsor, Prudential, and by the network, and it was heavily influenced by the US military, who were portrayed in all their Cold War glory. But those were the times, and America's leadership wasn't being called into question they way it would be after Vietnam.

And yes, Cronkite's conversion marked the turning point of America's perceptions of the Vietnam War. LBJ didn't run for re-election because he knew if he'd lost Cronkite, he would lose America. But Cronkite hadn't turned against the war because he was a liberal, but because he was a reporter, and had gone to Vietnam to see for himself. Todd Gitlin, in a New Republic story about Cronkite, quoted my friend and ex-ABC colleague Jack Laurence, as follows:

I asked John Laurence, formerly one of the stars of CBS's Vietnam reporting, what he remembered of Cronkite's special report. "The reason his Vietnam War broadcast in 1968 had such a big impact," he wrote back in an e-mail, "was that it was so unlike him to take a position on anything. It just wasn't done in those days." Laurence recalled dinner the night before Cronkite left Saigon: "Walter said he wanted to know what was really going on. The senior US military officers he had spoken with had told him the Tet Offensive was turning out to be a huge success for the allies because they were killing so many VC and NVA. They were predicting victory. I acknowledged the huge numbers of deaths, but pointed out that the Northerners would replace their losses and come at us again. And again, and again. And that the sooner we realized the fact that we were not going to win this fucking war, the better for everyone, especially the Vietnamese and Americans who were being butchered by the thousands. For no good purpose. I got a bit emotional and [chief CBS Vietnam correspondent Robert] Schackne gave me a polite but stiff kick in the shins under the table at one point, to suggest that I cool it".'

Gitlin continues: The CBS special aired on February 27, 1968, with this peroration: "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. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his big gasp before negotiations. 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.

Hardly the words of a radical. But more honest than the words of, say, Robert McNamara, who died just a week before Cronkite, and whom we now know was aware even then that the war was unwinnable, but just neglected to tell us, and didn't dare stand up to LBJ and tell him. McNamara was one of the 'best and the brightest', exactly the sort of guys who built NASA and put a man on the moon. They were the opposite side of America's Vietnam coin.

But do we need to look all the way back to Vietnam to note instances of the facts arguing for themselves against the pre-conceptions and subtrefuges of the war mongers, and to note the way an increasingly subservient media rush to condemn as leftists, subversives, traitors and/or terrorists those who simply, like Cronkite, present the facts?

What I like to think Cronkite stood for in the end was the decency of the common American, the nobility of journalistic curiosity, and the possibility that you could pursue news honestly on television, that you could respect and perhaps even give the benefit of the doubt to your audience, respect authority without bending over to it. Most of all, in a world of news, both local and national, that stokes the fires of fear and hatred, in the interests of power and profit, it was reassuring to be told that 'that's the way it is', and actually believe that it might not be all that bad, and that it might get better. That we might, someday, do something like put a man on the moon.

No comments :