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Walter Cronkite, the bowling league and us.

Walter CronkiteSoon we lay to rest Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America.”

Its no use trying to separate Cronkite’s history from America’s history, him being right there with so many of us during the moments we’ve marked our lives by. The glowing eulogies are deserved and they are far more equipped than I to capture the measure of the man. In their remembrances there’s a melancholy that says we think Cronkite’s brand of journalism has forever died with him. Surely, he will not be at peace with that epitaph.

It is odd that Cronkite is still unmatched in our esteem, because since his heyday, we’ve experienced technology’s jaw-dropping explosion that beams images across the globe near instantaneously – surely a leg up for today’s press corps to achieve. We now have 24-hour cable news, which (if nothing else) provides journalists with many, many hours of practicing their trade. Yet in our estimation this man working with near stone-age tools, relatively speaking, beats our current crop of journalists hands-down.

Suppose that says far more about us than it does about Cronkite or journalists? More specifically, maybe it speaks to who we were as a society when we tuned into Walter Cronkite. And boy do we ever miss the old us.

Cronkite’s America found us sitting around one television set, watching one of two newscasts, distinguished from each other more by personal preference than by ideology. Things didn’t change as fast in the days we spent our evenings with Cronkite, so I suppose there really wasn’t as much to disagree about. But back then we still made lots of room in our lives for people who differed from us politically because they were our neighbors, they were in our bowling league or in our garden club. Heck, we even married them.

Today the bowling league is gone and we’ve got little tolerance for just how wrong we think other people are. Our every information wish is our command as we flit around the dial finding our tribe, and then settle into our favorite armchairs with our favorite beverage to sing an alleluia chorus, free from pesky facts that might soften our views. We have so much comfort in our lives; the discomfort inherent in the disagreement of good citizenship that keeps democracy’s marketplace of ideas alive is just so been-there-done-that. It is just so Walter Cronkite.

There’s always been fighting in democracy. But now when we do it, we fight as if we’ll never need each other.

Even as we step inevitably into smaller and smaller hermetically sealed echo chambers of complete agreement, at some intuitive level we know it was our better selves who showed up to sit down in the living room to watch Cronkite together.

Bill Bishop writes about this phenomenon in “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” documenting demographic trends that have found us increasingly segregated by ideology since the mid-sixties. “As the nation grows more politically segregated,” writes Bishop, “the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.”

And we are nothing if not self-righteous. A hundred years of social science research confirms that like-minded groups grow more extreme in the direction of the majority.

Witness where we are.

If we’re honest enough with ourselves to realize the mucky stall we’ve found ourselves in, the remedy is oddly simple, requiring only the mildest of human effort to reach out and remember how much we still have in common. While we’re at it, America is plunk in the middle of a world that really needs us to lead in the kind of civil citizenship that is wonderfully and uniquely in our very DNA as a country. One wonders what can be achieved without a single shot fired if we only steadfastly live up to our very own ideals, the kind of ideals that by their nature quietly shine a light into the darkest corners of the globe saying, “this is democracy, this is what free people can do together.”

We will miss Walter Cronkite badly. Maybe the most fitting eulogy to Cronkite might be to simply remember who it is we were when we were last with him.

“There’s no Republican way to collect garbage”


On tonight’s Hardball, Chris Matthews, when discussing Judd Gregg bowing out of consideration for Commerce Secretary, referred to former New York Mayor John Lindsay (R), who according to Matthews said “there’s no Republican way to collect garbage.”

A wise man clearly ahead of his time.

(To my dear friend Anne: 1. Fact check, just like old times 2. More wise John Lindsay quotes 3. I remembered I always got the Ann vs. Anne wrong so I worked hard to get it right)

I believe in journalism and journalists (one in particular)

A dear friend of mine just turned 50. She has a big job at a major daily. I want you to think about the last time you said something snippy about the media, and I want you to consider it while I tell you about my friend.

First, she comes from a solidly conservative family, despite the fact that she has to regularly field many complaints about liberal bias and probably a few about conservative bias, and lets just say some of the complaints aren’t polite. She takes them very seriously though. Her vision in assessing the complaints has to be wide, not tunnel (as you and I have the luxury to have when we’ve got a bone to pick).

There wasn’t ever a time when I went to her house as a child when there weren’t ideas being flung back and forth at 100 miles an hour. I credit our friendship and my semi-child status with her parents for my interest in the public square, in the business of America. These people were real citizens of this country, and they had the rolled-up sleeves to prove it.

They were also real writers. They sometimes kept a manual typewriter (yes, this was a looong time ago) sitting with a sheet of paper in it with a couple of seed sentences to start a story. Someone else would come along and add a couple sentences of their own, and so on.

She is smart as a whip and somehow manages to put up with my trailing a few seconds (ok… sadly, minutes) behind her.

Please think of something you know about recent events. Did you learn it because of journalists like her? Some of them put themselves in harm’s way just so you can know.

This business of journalism annoys people. It kind of has to. This business of journalism has a lot to do with keeping us a free country, of keeping the powerful accountable to us little citizens. Sure, at times they do it imperfectly (a little thing we humans bring to everything we undertake). But look at where there isn’t an independent press to rankle and I’ll show you people who “yearn to breathe free.”

Journalists are the unsung heroes of democracy, in a business that’s tougher today than it was yesterday. And despite all that, they’ll get up again tomorrow and take your abuse and mine because they believe deeply in free speech, a free press and this little thing called democracy.

Thanks to my friend for spending her years doing something really really important. And Happy Birthday.

50 years.

wedding-small.jpgToday is my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. A lot has changed since September 7, 1957, not the least of which is I wasn’t around at all back then and now I’m not so very far from hitting 50 years myself. Between then and now my parents have built a life around each other and their three children. There has never been a moment since when they were not there for us. (Wow, they must be tired.) They’ve got three happy productive adult children to show for it (who have three marriages that seem to have stuck) and four spectacular grandchildren. And, best yet, they’re in Paris at this moment celebrating. They done good.

1957 – a year when Dwight Eisenhower took his second term, Elvis Presley bought Graceland, American Bandstand premiered, Dr. Seuss published Cat in the Hat and (of great family significance) North Carolina beat Kansas in triple overtimes to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

For most of the years of their marriage, it was the family joke on election day when my parents dutifully went to the polls “I’m going to go cancel out your dad’s/mom’s vote”. But they stayed married, go figure. I doubt if political party was even discussed seriously between them before they married – rather common dreams & values, a focus on family and a dedication to community and country. Almost 50 years later, my daughter wanted to date a fine young man. They almost never even considered it because they were of different political persuasions.

A lot can change in 50 years.

I know my parents are concerned with some of those changes, particularly in our civic and political landscape. In honor of their 50 years of marriage and their lives of service to this country (and out of respect for not making this day’s post about much else other than them) I will be starting a blog feature: “50 years.” Every once in a while, it’s worth a constructive look back. (Think we should deep six the “walked 2 miles to school in the snow uphill both ways” posts?)

Stay tuned.

And Happy Anniversary Mom & Dad. We love you.