Walter Cronkite Memorial inspires faith in free press

Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western State University

ST. JOSEPH, MO — Fifty years ago this week Walter Cronkite concluded a CBS News primetime special on the Vietnam War with a rare personal commentary that made history.

Just back from the battlefield after the Tet Offensive, America’s premier anchorman said he believed the war could not be won. Years of government propaganda that victory was near simply was not true, he declared.

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion,” Cronkite told his audience. “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.”

It’s hard to imagine any journalist today with the authority to coalesce public opinion against a government in power, as Cronkite did on February 27, 1968. A few weeks later President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Today, with journalism and the free press under attack — and no one on the scene with the stature of a Cronkite to mount a full-throated defense — it seemed like a good time for a pilgrimage to the birthplace of “The Most Trusted Man in America.”

Walter Cronkite Memorial

Here on the campus of Missouri Western State University, the Walter Cronkite Memorial is more than a fitting tribute to the life and times of one of St. Joseph’s most famous native sons. It’s also an inspiring shrine to the values he embodied throughout his career.

Among the fascinating interactive exhibits, artifacts and other memorabilia on display in this soaring two-story space is an area dedicated to Cronkite’s 1968 Vietnam War report, including the complete video of his commentary and his reflections on it.

Nearby is a kiosk commemorating Cronkite’s 1969 appearance before the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce in which he spoke out against White House threats to First Amendment freedoms. Though aimed at then-President Richard Nixon, the anchorman’s words could not be more resonant today.

Addressing the hometown audience for more than two hours, Cronkite accused the Nixon administration of “a clear effort at intimidation” that posed a real danger to democracy in America. Journalists were not “defending a precious right of our own,” he said, but “the people’s right to know.”

Dedicated in 2013 — four years after his death at age 92 — the Walter Cronkite Memorial features a replica of the studio from which he anchored “The CBS Evening News” for 19 years, and a timeline of the major stories he reported from World War II to Watergate. Even the story behind his signature sign-off, “And that’s the way it is,” gets the full treatment.

“It’s a labor of love to do a memorial for someone like Walter Cronkite, who is really worthy of being memorialized,” Robert Vartabedian, president of Missouri Western State University, once said of his vision for the exhibition, which is free and open to the public. “I think people will be very impressed. I think we will see people coming from all around, not only in this country but the world, to see it.”

(Disclosure: In 1972 I established The Walter Cronkite Fan Club and began a longtime friendship with the legendary anchorman.)

Wednesday’s best comment: Mark Quinn: Is there anyone who goes into the news business nowadays in order to report the news rather than advance an agenda?

Replica of Walter Cronkite’s anchor desk and CBS News studio