Cronkite, Gergen share
historic, political perspectives


Legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite shared his views on America, some of its major historic events of the last 50 years, and the War in Iraq, and former presidential adviser David Gergen did the same in a number of special events at Elon University April 8. Here's how the busy day unfolded:

The Gergen Q&A session

Gergen arrived on campus first, presiding over a fascinating question-and-answer session in Whitley Auditorium at which he shared anecdotes and insider insights about his years as an adviser to four American presidents with students and faculty members.

"We have nearly won the war; the question is, can we win the peace?" he said in response to a question about the current conflict in Iraq. The Middle East, he added, is "always full of surprises. Our troops have done extraordinarily well," he said. "It has been an extraordinary success and is about to conclude. The issue now is can we do as well as the end of World War II? We're much better at war, technology and power. Political management is hard."

He told a yarn about his days as an adviser to President Clinton, just after George H.W. Bush had left the presidency. There had been an attempt to take the former president's life as he visited Kuwait just after the Gulf War. Clinton had promised retribution, and he and his advisers decided to fire cruise missiles at a target south of Baghdad. The key method they had to rely upon in determining if the missile strikes were successful was watching CNN. "We watched CNN, and they showed nothing - just fashion stuff, things like that," said Gergen. Clinton had a plan to address the nation live on television about the U.S. retaliation once he was certain the strike had been successful. He was counting on CNN, and with no journalists reporting from Iraq on TV he had no way to tell. Gergen called his friend CNN chief Tom Johnson in Atlanta and asked him if there was "anything happening around Baghdad." Johnson informed Gergen that CNN had pulled its correspondents out of Iraq. There was a bit of a scramble, and just before Clinton's window of opportunity to address the nation on TV was about to close, a satellite picture showed enough evidence for him to go ahead and address the nation about the attack. Gergen's point was made: the U.S. government counts on the media for information, just as its people do. He added that this is evident in the embedded correspondents feeding live reports of the arrival of troops in Baghdad in what some are calling Gulf War II.

"Do we understand the rest of the world the way we should or do we only understand the American perspective?" he said to his Q-A audience. "We need to understand what the rest of the world is thinking." He encouraged students to travel often and learn other cultures.

A live chat with al-Jazeera

Just after Gergen's arrival, the Arab television network al-Jazeera contacted Elon officials to arrange a satellite interview with Gergen from Elon's campus. J. McMerty, coordinator of student television, quickly made arrangements for studio space and lighting in McEwen television Studio A. An area Fox News affiliate provided a microwave truck and a satellite uplink. All the pieces were in place for the 15-minute broadcast, from 5:15 to 5:30 p.m. Al-Jazeera mentioned Gergen was at Elon University during the broadcast.

A legend arrives with a twinkle in his eye

Walter Cronkite, 86,was the benevolent superstar at an afternoon press conference that packed McEwen Studio B to maximum capacity. His eyes twinkled as he addressed an audience there that included media representatives from newspapers and TV and radio stations based in Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Burlington.

Cronkite said the media is doing well in its war coverage, saying that "Most - not all - of the reporting has been exceptional." He said the correspondents who are embedded with the U.S. military forces are getting the kind of inside view that is necessary to convey the feeling for the war, but "we're still not seeing blood-letting, which is an essential part of seeing the horror of war, why we shouldn't be in war. You have to see the bodies, and we have been spared that."

Cronkite has been voicing his opposition to war in Iraq for some time now, appearing on CNN's "Larry King" and in other venues to express his point of view. "I have not changed my mind one iota," he said. "We should not be in Iraq without United Nations support."

Following the press conference, Cronkite met with students and faculty members to chat and pose for photographs, then devoted a significant amount of time to a special interview he taped with Elon School of Communications students who are completing a documentary series on the reporters who covered the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Gergen interviews Cronkite for a packed house

The main event of the day was "A Conversation with Walter Cronkite," at 6:30 p.m. in Koury Auditorium. A sell-out crowd witnessed a wandering chat led by gracious interviewer Gergen during which Cronkite told yarns about his days covering the events of World War II, sounded out a warning that today's TV news has become too shallow and entertainment-oriented, and voiced his disapproval at the "arrogance" of the American government in choosing to send its military to Iraq.

He spoke with Gergen for more than an hour before an intimate crowd of 2,900, sharing tales from his days as a United Press International correspondent in World War II, where he honed his field reporting skills.

"I came back as one of UPI's best reporters," Cronkite said. "I had a great story; you couldn't do anything wrong with it." His next journey into battle would come during the Vietnam War, when millions of Americans relied on CBS news anchor "Uncle Walter" to tell them "the way it is." He traveled to Vietnam himself, to get as close as he could to some sort of "truth" about the conflict.

"Americans were terribly confused about that war," he said. When Cronkite returned, he shared his opinion in a special editorial segment on television in which he said the U.S. would not win the war; it would end in a stalemate. Many historians believe Cronkite's opinion was a major factor in President Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for re-election in 1968.

"We always tried to be in the middle of the road with our coverage of Vietnam," Cronkite said. "We got a lot of mail criticizing our coverage, but we always kept two bags of mail, one with the letters praising our coverage, and the other with the letters against it. I always thought if those two bags weighed about the same, then we were doing a pretty good job."

Asked to reflect on some of the U.S. presidents he covered, Cronkite discussed John F. Kennedy's ascension from the Senate to the Oval Office. "I liked Kennedy as a senator quite a lot, but then as he got into the presidential race, I began to understand what others had told me, that there was a Kennedy arrogance."

But when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Cronkite nearly broke down on live television as he delivered the news to a stunned nation. He said Kennedy's assassination "was an exclamation point to the worst decade we've had in this country, except perhaps for the Civil War."

Cronkite also had high praise for President Johnson, who abandoned his segregationist stance once elected to the White House. "I admired LBJ. Here was a man who was a Southwesterner, a Texan, who led the fight to maintain segregation until he became president of all the people," Cronkite said. "I thought that political courage, to change his field, was the likes of which we have seldom seen."

WRAL-TV of Raleigh covered the event and aired a package that included footage of Elon School of Communications students taping their Civil Rights interview with Cronkite. WRAL relayed the package to the CBS national news feed, and the story from Elon was aired on stations across the United States, including KYW-TV, Philadelphia; WUSA-TV, Washington, D.C.; WTKR-TV, Norfolk; WOFL-TV, Orlando; WBTV-TV, Charlotte; WBNS-TV, Columbus, Ohio; and KSAZ-TV, Phoenix.




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Last Modified:  4/10/03
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