"in truth i tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times."
— matthew 26:34
november 1967: in response to the growing demonstrations that culminated in the october peace march on the pentagon, president lyndon johnson launched a press blitz aimed at shoring up flagging support for the vietnam war. johnson relit "the light at the tunnel" and flew general william westmoreland, commander of u.s. forces in vietnam, to washington to personally assure the national press club that "we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view." johnson received a nearly 10-point bounce in the polls for his efforts, from 40% to 48%.
however, johnson's bounce in the polls was quickly turned into a dive by the startling tet offensive, launched by the north vietnamese at the start of february 1968, which demonstrated that they were far from their last throes. during the offensive american audiences were also treated to a brutal street execution and were introduced to the now-famous phrase "we had to destroy the village in order to save it", attributed by many to the destruction of the city of ben tre.
by february's end a turning point in the war of domestic public opinion had arrived, made explicit when cbs evening news anchor walter cronkite, considered by viewers, "the most trusted man in america" — even as late as 1995 — concluded that "it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of vietnam is to end in a stalemate." in turn, johnson reportedly concluded that "if i've lost walter cronkite, i've lost middle america." the "light at the end of the tunnel" had been rudely snuffed out in homes across america.
johnson's approval sank back down to 38% and approval for his handling of the war hit 26%. comprehending the hole he was in, on the last day of march he withdrew his bid for reelection.
38 years later
november 2005: nearly three years into the war, with support for the occupation and the president at its lowest ebb — a familiar 38% — george w. bush launched his public relations blitz, dubbed the "national strategy for victory in iraq". while the speeches may have earned him a modest bounce of 5 points, one could argue instead that it was the december 15 iraqi elections that gave america a glimpse of hope. but bush could not escape johnson's fate and his bounce too came crashing down in late february when the golden mosque in samarra was destroyed, dashing any hope that civil war could be averted.
by that time venerable walter cronkite, long retired but still active at the ripe age of 89, had already made his case for withdrawal in january:
"it's my belief that we should get out now," cronkite said in a meeting with reporters.
... the best time to have made a similar statement about iraq came after hurricane katrina, he said.
"we had an opportunity to say to the world and iraqis after the hurricane disaster that mother nature has not treated us well and we find ourselves missing the amount of money it takes to help these poor people out of their homeless situation and rebuild some of our most important cities in the united states," he said. "therefore, we are going to have to bring our troops home."
but his pronouncement was no "cronkite moment": in fact the journalist had come out against the war at least as far back as december 2003:
kurtz: let's talk a little bit about your views. you were opposed, no question about it, to the war in iraq. why?
cronkite: well, not so much the war in iraq, as the way we entered the war in iraq. without any support from our previous allies, or the united nations as a whole. it seemed to me that this was — this unilateralism is a very serious breach of diplomacy, of strategy.
having remained largely out of the public eye for twenty years, cronkite no longer holds the nation in the thrall he once enjoyed as television's preeminent newsman, despite the continued respect of the public and the absense of any clear heir. furthermore, his advanced age, his having "outed" himself as a "social liberal" and his having endorsed 2004 democratic presidential hopeful dennis "moonbeam" kucinich's proposal for a federal "department of peace" gave ruthless war boosters fodder that they could use to dismiss the news legend as a doddering "leftie" loon.
but there can be little doubt that america had reached a "cronkite moment", even if the man himself was unable to deliver it personally. no, today's proliferation of network and cable news options no longer affords a single voice that kind of power over the national conscience. but three noteworthy voices did chime that week in february when the golden mosque was destroyed — noteworthy because they all were vocal supporters of the invasion.
bill o'reilly, fox news host and the most watched personality on cable news, could certainly lay claim to an audience the size of cronkite's, but no one save o'reilly himself would lay claim to any of cronkite's gravitas. quite the opposite: o'reilly is a sanctimonious screeching cartoon. nevertheless, on february 21, the day before the bombing of the golden mosque, a flummoxed o'reilly proclaimed:
here is the essential problem in iraq. there are so many nuts in the country — so many crazies — that we can't control them. and i don't — we're never gonna be able to control them. so the only solution to this is to hand over everything to the iraqis as fast as humanly possible. because we just can't control these crazy people. this is all over the place. and that was the big mistake about america: they didn't — it was the crazy-people underestimation. we did not know how to deal with them — still don't. but they're just all over the place.
bill buckley, jr., called "the father of contemporary conservatism", founder of the national review, is known to the layperson as the longtime host of firing line, his public policy arena. buckley's real audience however is the washington beltway; the professional narcissists in the nation's capitol want to know what buckley thinks of them. two days after the bombing a morose buckley concluded:
one can't doubt that the american objective in iraq has failed.
... our mission has failed because iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 americans.
... different plans have to be made. and the kernel here is the acknowledgment of defeat.
bill kristol, scion of a founder of neoconservatism and the founder of the weekly standard, is familiar to viewers as a regular commentator on the fox news circuit. as a founder and chairman of the project for the new american century (whose members had included neo-apostate francis fukuyama), the think tank behind much of bush's suicidal foreign policy, kristol is the rightful father of the iraq adventure. speaking on the weekend following the bombing, as would a step-parent to a brood of half-wits, a testy kristol complained:
kristol: there would not be civil war if zarqawi had not spent the last 2 1/2 years — had ex-saddamists with him, very skillfully going on the offensive slaughtering shia in karbala, now blowing up the mosque.
wallace: they’re there. there are going to be more mosques to blow up. what do you do about the terrorists?
kristol: kill them. defeat them.
wallace: we’ve been trying.
kristol: we’ve been trying, and our soldiers are doing terrifically, but we have not had a serious three-year effort to fight a war in iraq as opposed to laying the preconditions for getting out.
connelly: i think that really begs the question then: what have we been doing over there for three-plus years? you say there hasn’t been a serious effort to rid that region of the terrorists. i just wonder what secretary rumsfeld would say in response to that or all the u.s. soldiers who have been over there all this time.
kristol: secretary rumsfeld’s plan was to draw down to 30,000 troops at the end of major activities.
in less than a week, after civil war could no longer be denied, a popular champion of the war and a respected opinion leader publicly abandoned the mission and one of its key architects publicly disparaged its execution. the bills have tolled. the cock has crowed. despite his claims to disregard polls and pundits, there can be no doubt that george bush has heard the knell and the caw. sadly for those still destined to suffer the gravest mistake of his presidency, bush has yet to exhibit any of johnson's powers of comprehension and appears intent only on abandoning any reckoning or resolution to his ill-starred successors.