First Posted: 7/18/2009
I was prepared to write this week about the 20th anniversary of the Neil Armstrongs step onto the lunar surface, and in fact I was doing just that Friday night when I learned of Walter Cronkites death.
I was a few months short of turning 6 when that moon landing took place, and it is really the earliest major news event I recall. In fact, it is Cronkites everyman sense of awe I remember as much as anything from that newscast.
The Apollo 11 landing was such a milestone in our nations evolution. Just eight years earlier President John F. Kennedy had all but promised the world we would put a man on the moon before the end of that decade, quite a commitment given the technology to do so was not yet in available.
That moon landing captivated the world, and particularly in America, there was a sense that anything was now possible. This all happened against the backdrop of great upheaval in America. The 1960s saw the supposed counter-culture and social revolution.
Drug use became rampant, teens and young adults rebelled against their parents and the norms of society. Police and civilians clashed often in streets of major cities across America. Less than a year after Armstrong sat foot on the moon Ohio National Guard troops shot down and killed four students at Kent State University.
Vietnam was a constant dark cloud hanging over all of this. That conflict, played out on the television news every night in homes across America, changed forever how we viewed war, how we felt about seeing our young gunned down in a foreign land, and how we would limit the use of military force for years to come.
Right in the middle of it was Walter Cronkite. He was, in all of this turbulence, a voice that delivered the news for the sake of simply informing his viewers of what was going on. His reassuring, authoritative voice brought us the news every day, but at the same time made so many people feel that, somehow, some way, everything would eventually be okay.
He was a constant for millions upon millions of viewers. Remember, this was a time when television was three networks no cable, no DVDs or VHSs, no Internet, and little in the way of radio so nearly all of America gathered around their television sets every day at 6:30 p.m. to watch the news. And most watched Cronkite.
He told us, emotionally, of Kennedys death. He wowed his way through the lunar landing. Cronkite visited Vietnam to report from the front lines. He was seemingly the only person in the media who never forgot the American hostages held in Iran from Nov. 4, 1979 until Jan. 20, 1981.
He had an unyielding belief that his job wasnt to spin the news, but simply report it, and that the American public would understand what was happening and know what to do with the knowledge.
I think that belief in the national populous is what made Cronkite a steadying force in society, one who contributed to a certain quiet optimism, that gave us all a reason for hope, even in dark times.
Never was that optimism higher than on July 20, 1969, when Armstrong stepped on the lunar dust and said Thats one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Many people believed lunar colonization, and manned flights to Mars, were just around the corner, to be followed by visits to the outer planets of the solar system and then the rest of the galaxy.
Outer space, and its exploration, promised to be the unifying force for mankind. It was something larger than any nation, more important than any other particular cause.
Of course, none of that happened. Great technological advances followed, but we seemed to have frittered them away in mind-numbing entertainment applications. Today we have hundreds of television channels, all broadcast in such clarity it can seem as if the characters are leaping off the screen.
We chat with people anywhere in the world, in real time, via the Internet. A person can carry around on a single MP3 player enough musical selections to have rivaled, or even surpassed, the total album library of some radio stations from 1969. Heck, an I-Pod puts more computing power in the palm of your hand than was aboard the entire rocket and landing ship for Apollo 11.
But, what meaningful advancements have occurred since 1969? Yes, there has been significant progress in the medical field, but outside of that, what? Longer lasting lightbulbs? Somewhat more fuel efficient vehicles on the highway? Cheaper flashlights?
We still have wars, fought largely for the same reasons as they were in 1969. Hunger, homelessness, poverty are all still with us. Unmanned space probes have taught us a bit about the other planets in the solar system, but weve made no real progress toward reaching any of those Apollo-inspired dreams.
Walter Cronkite, a voice from that long-ago time, never seemed to lose his faith in America, in his hope for the future.
Really, what alternative is there? To not look toward the future, to not hope, is to give up on life. Thats something I dont think any of us should ever do.
So tomorrow, take a few minutes to remember that lunar landing. If youre too young too remember it, go online (something you might not be able to do today if not for the 1960s-era space program) and do a little research on the project and the culture of the times.
And lets see if we cant, as a community, recapture some of the optimism the landing, and Walter Cronkite, inspired.
John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected]