Text Of “Washington Times” Cronkite Column
NEW YORK, N.Y. — I’m early, sitting all alone in the middle of the second row of the 63-seat auditorium of The Museum of Broadcasting where Walter Cronkite will soon conduct the first of four seminars about television news. Suddenly, Mr. C. and his host, the president of the museum, enter the room to check out the setting. Mr. C. says something about how questions may have to be repeated because his hearing is “starting to go.” He looks at me and smiles. Noting I am an early arrival, Mr. C. wonders aloud if I have been in my seat since the previous day? I say “no.” He laughs. I smile.
T’is the season to be jolly.
But this is the last time Mr. C. will smile at me. Later in the evening he will tell me to “shut up!” Then he will apologize. And I will accept his apology.
Now, my purpose in traveling to the Big Apple is not to hear Mr. C. talk about his career, as interesting as this turns out to be. My purpose, once again, is to attempt to get an answer to a question I’ve been trying to get an answer to for a little more than a year.
On June 16, 1984, on Irv Kupcinet’s Chicago based talk show, Dr. Helen Caldicott - the woman Sen. Edward Kennedy has called “the mother of the nuclear freeze movement” - declared that Mr. C. had told her that he was in favor of “total unilateral disarmament and passive resistance.”
In her 1984 book Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War, on page 339, Dr. Caldicott repeats what she says are Mr. C’s views, writing:
“Journalist Walter Cronkite recently told me that for years, he has been in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament. He thinks that America should totally disarm within 10 years, and some of the money saved should be used to create satellites and communications systems to educate the people of the world about how to live in peace.The money could also be used for food programs, and to help the industrial conversion process from weapons to peace. He said he favors passive resistance - that if tens of thousands of people just sat down in front of Russian tanks, what could they do? He said we should make the arms negotiators sit at a table, and stop the clock and lock the door until they achieve appropriate arms reductions.”
In an attempt to verify that these were, in fact, Mr. C’s views, I call his office, where a helpful - sounding assistant , Lee Chiaramonte, tells me she will check this with her boss. Days turn into weeks. When I call Ms. Chiaramonte back, she explains that she has not called me back because Mr.C.had not yet responded to my query.
Weeks turn into months. And then, lo and behold, late last year, in San Francisco, while walking through the crowd just outside the hail where the Democratic National Convention is meeting, who do I come face-to-face with but Walter Cronkite!
Trying not to panic but, admittedly, starting to breath hard, I introduce myself. As he continues to walk, while noting that he is “very busy,” I stick my microcassette tape recorder in Mr. C.’s face and ask him about what Dr. Caldicott says are his views on nuclear weapons.
At this point, Mr. C. asks, although I had already answered this question: “Who are you?” I identify myself again. Then, reacting like a vampire confronted by a crucifix, Mr. C. says: “Oh, yes, I know you. Good to talk to you.” And he bolts. I chase him.
My tape recorder as close to Mr. C’s mouth as I can get it, I repeatedly ask him about what Dr. Caldicott says are his views. He does not answer. In fact, he doesn’t even look back at me.
We move rapidly through the crowd clogging the walkway around the convention hall. Mr. C. dodges this way and that to avoid running over people. Some people recognize him. They say hello. He greets them on the run, slapping some of his admirers on the back to acknowledge their greetings.
Taking evasive action and moving rather sprightly for an older man, Mr. C. swerves out into the convention hall lobby. He darts back onto the pathway around this hall. Finally, we break into an open space, and it is obvious where Mr. C. is seeking refuge: the headquarters of CBS News. He moves quickly between two security guards and dashes up three flights of stairs, where he stands talking with Dan Rather as I slink away, my tail between my legs.
Coises! Foiled again! That is, until tonight, Dec. 10, when Mr. C. has room neither to run nor hide.
With only 10 minutes left in Mr. C.’s two-hour presentation, I pop the question. With two tape recorders rolling on my lap, I read from a photocopy of Dr. Caldicott’s book and ask him: Are these your views? To which Mr. C. replies:
“You’ve carried that tape recorder around for four years now [ less than two, but then everything Mr. C. says must be divided by at least two J.L} trying to get me to answer, and I have denied you an answer before because the circumstances in which you attempted to ask it - at a time when I was rushing off to do something else - and that takes about a 15- minute dissertation, which I gave Dr, Caldicott at that time. And I was perfectly willing to have you go to her or come or come back to me at another time for a 15- minute dissertation on that question.” (But, like I say, whatever Mr. C. says must be divided by at least two. What he says is hogwash. He never said to me what he says he said. And after his presentation is over, he tells me that he is unaware that I ever spoke to his assistant, Ms. Chiaramonte).
Referring to my column in this paper on Aug. 1, 1984, in which I wrote about our confrontation at the Democratic Convention, Mr. C. says: “You maligned me seriously to the very near point of libel, and if! had been interested in such things, I would have charged you with that - at that time, the way you handled my attempt to tell you that in the halls of the Republican National Convention [ divide by at least two; it was the Democratic Convention-J.L] which you were attempting to cover in your normal way.”
Me: Why don’t you quit attacking me and answer my question?!
Mr. C: “Because I’m getting even with you.”
Me: OK, now that we’re even, how about answering my question?
Mr. C: “Do you really want a 15-minute dissertation?”
Some people in the audience say, “no, no.”
Mr. C: “I’ll give you two minutes. I’ll give you one minute. Will you identify yourself?”
Me: My name is John Lofton, and I write a column for the Washington Times.
Mr. C: “Since everybody reads you and knows you well, I thought you’d like to identify yourself.”
Me: You can’t run tonight.
Mr. C: “What I suggested was - I did not advocate unilateral disarmament. What I said was that a proposal that might very well be put forward and considered - we need, what we need is some dramatic and drastic move toward disarmament in order to get us off dead-center. We cannot go on like this without an expenditure of atomic weapons which would ruin and end the world and our civilization.
“It might be considered that there is a way to indulge in uh, uh unilateral disarmament by a phased withdrawal of weapons over 10 years, challenging the Russians to match our move item-by-item, with inspection, and taking every cent we save from this vast arms expenditure and turning it into social expenditures to build the housing we need, to feed the poor who are hungry around the world. And in every country of the world we could spend that money and could not even fund enough money to spend - I mean, could not find enough ways to spend the amount of money we would save from the arms expenditures.
“We could save 10 percent a year over 10 years. And we’d have enough money left over - although this would be the first priority - to spend it on propaganda to teach the world passive resistance if the Russians ever did come. And that was the idea, not an advocacy of the idea, but an idea that might be debated.”
Sorry, but to me, all this pettifogging amounts, basically, to a confirmation that Mr. C’s views are exactly what Dr. Caldicott reported them to be. When Mr. C. concludes his explanation by noting that I could have had this answer “anytime” if “you had come back for it,” I say: “But you ran when I asked you this question!”
Mr. C: “I ran because I was busy I wasn’t going to stand and talk with you…
Me: (Interrupting) Baloney! Look, Mr. C., you stopped…
Mr. C: (Interrupting and pointing his finger at me) “Shut up!”
At this point, the museum’s president tells me that I must “keep quiet or leave.
Me: But, what happened to the First Amendment, my right to free speech?
Chaos ensues. Some members of the audience tell me to pipe down and generally express their dissatisfaction that I would ask such a substantive question during what was, obviously, supposed to be a love feast.
After his presentation is completed and he is thanked, Mr. C. is loudly applauded. And then he says: “Before we all go, I want to apologize to a man whose writings I detest, John Lofton, for saying, ‘Shut up!’. You finally got my pique up again, as you have before. We have a personality clash and ideological perhaps. And I apologize to you.”
Me: And I accept your apology. Shortly thereafter, I offer my hand to Mr. C. He shakes it firmly.
But, as is frequently the case, Mr. C. is mistaken. We have no personality clash. I find his personality charming. We do. however, have a disagreement about nuclear disarmament and what Russians would do if people sat down in front of their tanks my guess is about 20 miles per hour in second gear as far as the people extended. Ask the Hungarians. And we disagree about the facts concerning my attempts to get him to respond to what Dr. Caldicott said were his views. On this latter subject, he is simply wrong.
Ironically, in an answer to a question near the end of his presentation - a question after my question - Mr. C. praises the fact that today’s TV reporters are “far more aggressive” and less timid. He says he’s “glad” that “investigative teams” have come along because they’ve “jarred Washington out of a certain lethargy that afflicted correspondents for years.” But he is “sorry,” however, that it was necessary to give investigative journalists a title, since “I thought all journalists were supposed to be investigative.” Well, indeed they are, Mr. C., which is why I traveled to New York City to nail you. And that’s the way it really is.