Paul Greenberg / June 10, 2009

Watershed Moments

The moment Lyndon Johnson realized Vietnam was a lost cause came when Walter Cronkite, the surest barometer of American public opinion in his time, came out against the war. Uncle Walter, aka The Most Trusted Man in America, was so shaken by the Tet Offensive of 1968 that he announced the war had become unwinnable. The president and commander-in-chief drew the unavoidable conclusion: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

In Vietnam itself, the offensive would turn out to be a military disaster for the Viet Cong. After the smoke had cleared, it turned out American forces had held their ground. And so had our Vietnamese allies. Enemy casualties littered the fields. But it didn’t matter. The enemy had won the war for American public opinion and, with it, the war. Our defeat came to be assumed, as in Iraq before the Surge turned the tide. And assumption would eventually become reality. It was a watershed moment.

That moment from the tumultuous Sixties came to mind on seeing a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine; it showed your typical street prophet bearing a sign declaring: “THE END IS STILL COMING!” A couple passing by on the sidewalk stare in amazement as they realize who the man with the sign is. To quote the caption: “Wasn’t that Paul Krugman?”

Yes, Paul Krugman, the Princeton professor who has been predicting a second, worldwide Great Depression for years. The recent slump made him appear a prophet. Although by now even he’s had to admit that utter catastrophe may yet be avoided. Though he doesn’t sound too happy about it. He’s still holding out hope for a prolonged period of economic stagnation similar to Japan’s Lost Decade.

The appearance of that cartoon may prove another watershed moment. If the time has arrived when The New Yorker, that ever stylish reflection of fashionable American opinion, can have a little fun with Paul Krugman, then perspective (and the American economy) may be returning.

The realization that this recession, too, will pass begins to dawn. It’s turning out to be only a recession, if a severe one, or maybe an old-fashioned 19th-century financial panic, but not The End of the World. Unless, of course, the administration’s over-reaction to the slump, its attempt to restart the economic engine by flooding it with cheap dollars, sets off a Weimaresque wave of inflation, or a Carteresque stagflation. But for the moment hope is in the air. Especially on the big board in New York.

Can we have passed the watershed?

———-

I have a simple rule when tuning into NPR News in the car. Mainly on the principle of Know Your Enemy. At the first silly comment, or just partisan gibe disguised as objective reporting, I switch over to the classical music station. For the sake of my mental health. Because if I’m not careful, I’ll find myself talking back to Nina Totenberg or, even more futile, the insufferable Diane Rehm. I usually have to wait no more than 30 seconds before returning to the classical.

Then I heard the familiar, comforting, inexhaustible voice of Daniel Schorr, all set to regale me with still another account of what he was covering 50 or 60 years ago. How soothing. But wait. This didn’t sound like good ol’, dull ol’, same ol’ Daniel Schorr. He was talking about Kim Jong Il’s latest series of nuclear blasts, missile launches and bellicose warnings. And, glory be, he was delivering a soliloquy on the folly of appeasing despots, specifically North Korea’s sick (in more than one way) little dictator.

Mr. Schorr was soon reprising the futile history of trying to buy off Dear Leader with concessions – on the part of both the Bush and Clinton administrations. (“The somber fact is that the outside world has just about run out of peaceful options for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat. Every effort to get Kim Jong Il to give up his aggressive designs has turned out to be a perverse incentive….”)

Goodness. The voice was the voice of Daniel Schorr, but the views were those of–John Bolton. That’s the former American ambassador to the United Nations who’s warned all along that rewarding Pyongyang for its duplicity would lead to, well, just where it has led.

How strange: John Bolton is the diplomatic dean of American neoconservatism, a kind of Daniel Patrick Moynihan of the right, never hesitating to say the unconventional for no better reason than it is obvious. And Daniel Schorr is, well, Daniel Schorr – the nice, perfectly conventional liberal who hasn’t said anything unconventional since … well, I can’t remember when. I pulled over and sat there transfixed. How often do you hear Daniel Schorr channeling John Bolton? It wasn’t quite an out-of-body experience, but it was certainly an experience out of the usual political context.

It was a mystery. How had John Bolton managed to sneak into NPR’s studios and write a script for Daniel Schorr? Mozart might be waiting just a click away, but I couldn’t touch the car radio. I just listened, mesmerized.

It was one of those times to remember when, without drumroll or bugle call, the party line seamlessly changes – with the ease of the telescreen in George Orwell’s 1984 announcing that Oceania was now at war with Eastasia and always had been. Anything to the contrary was now down the memory hole. It had been rendered, in a Nixonian phrase, inoperative.

Most impressive of all, Mr. Schorr didn’t skip a beat. NPR’s party line had shifted without a tremor. If the forces of inertia in American foreign policy, which don’t advocate appeasement explicitly but just sort of drift into it, have lost Daniel Schorr, then they’ve lost Middle America.

It was, in short, a watershed moment.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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