Cronkite biography recalls the atmosphere surrounding the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, drawing comparisons with today's political climate.
Remembering how to hate
I’ve been reading Douglas Brinkley’s new book, Cronkite, and have found it fascinating.
I had the privilege of visiting with the legendary news announcer when he was in Madison several years ago to do a fundraiser for “WisconsinEye,” the C-SPAN-like public affairs network that airs many of the state’s governmental meetings, including our contentious Legislature.
Cronkite had gone from a “Unipresser” (the nickname for United Press wire service reporters) in the late ’30s, into the war years of the ’40s and then on to CBS Television, where he eventually became the most trusted network news purveyor in America.
It’s a huge book and Brinkley devotes a good share of its space to Cronkite’s marathon on-the-air performance covering the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Video clips are still shown of Cronkite somberly taking off his glasses and clearly in emotional pain looking into the camera like a trusted uncle and announcing that the president was dead. The nation collectively gasped.
But what struck me more about “Uncle Walter’s” iconic announcing that dreadful week was the closing of his newscast on Nov. 25, 1963, just after JFK was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery.
Brinkley quotes from it:
“It is said that the human mind has a greater capacity for remembering the pleasant than the unpleasant. But today was a day that will live in memory and in grief. Only history can write the importance of this day: Were these dark days the harbingers of even blacker ones to come, or like the black before the dawn shall they lead to some still as yet indiscernible sunrise of understanding among men, that violent words, no matter what their origin or motivation, can lead only to violent deeds?” ...
“Tonight there will be few Americans who will go to bed without carrying with them the sense that somehow they have failed. If in the search of our conscience we find a new dedication to the American concepts that brook no political, sectional, religious or racial divisions, then maybe it may yet be possible to say that John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not die in vain.”
The passage — “violent words, no matter what their origin or motivation, can lead only to violent deeds” — made me pause. I was on active duty in southern Oklahoma most of 1963 and we had access to many Texas newspapers, which nearly daily printed letters and columns decrying Jack Kennedy as some kind of un-American political villain. The week of JFK’s ill-fated visit to Texas, some right-wingers took out full page ads in the newspapers to inform the president he wasn’t welcome in Dallas.
Shortly after the assassination, the late Dallas Morning News reporter Warren Leslie even wrote a book about those times in Texas. “It is an extraordinary thing when an American city does not trust itself to receive the president of the United States in dignity,” Leslie wrote. “Dallas did not so trust itself — and with reason.”
The reason, he went on to say, was the stridency and dominance of right-wing politics that had the blessing of the city’s business elite.
“Almost without exception, there are people who feel that their greatest enemy is not the Soviet Union or Communist China, but the government of the United States,” he added. “They feel their worst enemies are other Americans who disagree with them. They are not equipped to deal with contradictory evidence; when it appears, they boo it and hiss it to make it go away.”
He was not suggesting that this attitude OK’d shooting the president, but it helped create an atmosphere where a person like a Lee Harvey Oswald felt it was acceptable to do so.
Today, when I look at emails and commentaries on online news stories and columns, I wonder if we haven’t devolved to those days of hate and intolerance. The vitriol spewed about President Obama, for instance — most of it nothing more than a product of ignorance and plain, old bigotry — is nothing short of scary. Besides the juvenile rants about his being a Muslim and a foreigner, some openly call for his scalp. It makes me ill.
And, as Leslie wrote some 49 years ago, the people commenting are not equipped to deal with contradictory evidence and when it appears they just boo and hiss to make it go away.
Walter Cronkite’s warning in 1963 that violent words can only lead to violent deeds is a clear warning to this very day.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the opinion section of the Capital Times.)
October 9, 2012
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Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of the Capital Times and a FightingBob.com contributing editor.