A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite and the Middle East

Oh my. Ask and it shall be answered. In my immediately previous post I noted that everybody I've posted under the "obituaries" label so far has been pretty ambiguous in their historical legacy but that perhaps I'll have a chance to offer some unreserved praise. Then I heard from my wife, who was watching TV while I blogged, that Walter Cronkite had died. And he had a major role in one particular event in Middle Eastern history. And if you've got something bad to say about him, please say it somewhere else.

My generation needs no introduction to Uncle Walter. Before I got here he was dropping with the paratroops in Market Garden, the disastrous Arnhem operation of World War II. He was the newsman of my youth, and his You Are There introduced me to the history of my parents' generation. And that moment in November 1963 when he took off those black horn-rims, looked up at the clock, and announced that John F. Kennedy was dead, with a catch in his voice, will live forever. He helped us through it. And he got us to the moon. And when Uncle Walter turned against the Vietnam war, it was the beginning of the endgame. Even Lyndon Johnson famously said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." (Google it. It's Friday night. I don't want to take the time. It'll be in all the morning papers, anyway.)

And he died in the midst of the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a day after the anniversary of the launch, three days before the anniversary of the landing. (Historical irony? Synchronicity? Interesting anyway.) We could not have gone to the moon without Walter Cronkite, could we have? When he retired, the space program got boring. He made things official, somehow. When he said "That's the way it is," we knew that that was the way it was.

There will be a lot of memories of Walter Cronkite over the next few days (though it won't match Michael Jackson), so I'll limit myself to remembering why Uncle Walter was important to the Middle East: in 1977 he cornered first Sadat, then Begin, in TV interviews to agree to a direct meeting. Oh, sure, the Egyptians had been working through Moroccan back-channels for a long time, but the fact that Cronkite asked Sadat directly, on US TV, if he would actually go to Israel, and he said yes, and then Cronkite asked Begin, who didn't have much of an out . . . the point is, the process was already afoot, but Cronkite pushed the leaders in public, and Sadat's native showmanship was such that he accepted the challenge. It would have happened anyway, but Cronkite made it happen sooner. (Be patient, when I can find a YouTube of it I'll link.)

I'm not immediately remembering other major Cronkite involvement in Middle Eastern history, but what more do you need? He pushed Sadat and Begin together. And my generation hasn't really watched network news that much since Uncle Walter retired. (We watch CNN or MSNBC or Fox depending on our tastes, but is there a Cronkite among them?) No one in the Internet era has that authority, that solid grandfatherly reassurance.

Any young folk who don't understand my signoff, ask your elders:

And that's the way it is, Friday, July 17, 2009.

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1 comment:

PerfectMomentProject said...

'Most trusted' is a cliche, perhaps, but honestly, Walter Cronkite was the second most important man in my life.

Walter Cronkite reinforced the lessons my father gave me.

And then in so many ways, he became the man who helped shape my life into the extraordinary journey that it's been.

Thank you, Mr. Cronkite.