On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite, the longtime anchorman of the CBS Evening News and the gruff but kindly voice of what was then called Middle America, signed off his broadcast on an unusual note. Freshly returned from Vietnam, where the Tet offensive had just ended, Cronkite offered what he called “an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective.” “We have too often been disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he said. “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic yet unsatisfactory conclusion.” Like the famous issue of Life devoted to photographs of a week’s worth of American dead, Cronkite’s polite demurral came to symbolize the long migration of opposition to the war in Vietnam from the fringe—the campus firebrands, the radical clerics, the flowers-in-gun-barrels hippies, the papier-mâché puppeteers—to the wide, upholstered center of American political life.
The center of American politics is no longer as roomy (or as comfy) as it was then. The fringe, now luxuriant only at the rightmost edge of the political prayer rug, has gone online and wired itself for AM radio and cable TV. And nowhere in the cacophonous, atomized “media environment” of today is there anyone capable of deploying the wall-to-wall avuncular authority that was Cronkite’s stock-in-trade. Even so, in this August of 2006 a palpable, ’68-like shift in sentiment is in the steamy air. Among foreign-policy élites and the broader public alike, it has become the preponderant conviction that George W. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq is a catastrophe.
“It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq,” Thomas L. Friedman wrote, in the August 4th edition of the Times. “We are baby-sitting a civil war.” Friedman may not be another Walter Lippmann (just as any number of Stewarts, Olbermanns, O’Reillys, and Coopers don’t quite add up to a Cronkite), but he is the most influential foreign-affairs columnist in the country, and from the beginning he has been a critical supporter of the war. His defection is a bellwether. “The Administration now has to admit what anyone—including myself—who believed in the importance of getting Iraq right has to admit,” he wrote. “Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it is not happening, and we can’t throw more good lives after good lives.” In a Washington Post column a day earlier, the relentlessly centrist David S. Broder, citing his colleague Thomas E. Ricks’s new book, “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” admitted that “the hope for victory is gone” and deplored “the answer from Bush,” which he characterized this way: “Carry on. Do not waver. And do not question the logic of prolonging the agony.”
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