Cronkite Was Right About This 'War,' Too

July 22, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

Walter Cronkite, once the most trusted man in America and a leading figure in broadcast journalism's Mount Rushmore, believed the nation's war on drugs was unwinnable, and he said so on television. A decade after his years with CBS News, Mr. Cronkite succeeded in raising public awareness of the war's futility - an impressive accomplishment.

Of course, Mr. Cronkite is famous for having reached the same correct conclusion about the Vietnam War in 1968. All of his obituaries have recalled Mr. Cronkite's special report from Vietnam, his characterization of the war as stalemate and his call for a negotiated peace. President Lyndon B. Johnson was famously quoted as saying, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Later that year, Mr. Johnson decided not to seek re-election.

In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, Mr. Cronkite narrated a series of investigative reports for the Discovery Channel. One of them, in 1995, was "The Drug Dilemma - War or Peace?" In it, Mr. Cronkite said: "Just about every American was shocked when Robert McNamara, one of the master architects of the Vietnam War, acknowledged that not only did he believe the war was 'wrong, terribly wrong,' but that he thought so at the very time he was helping to wage it. That's a mistake we must not make in this tenth year of America's all-out war on drugs."

One of the "Cronkite Reports" for Discovery focused on three women who had been incarcerated for drug possession. Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that, "the extraordinary lengths of the prison terms to which they had been sentenced, for relatively minor participation in the illicit sale of drugs, combined with the impact on their children and families, and the absurd amount of money being spent to punish rather than help and treat - all this shaped Cronkite's devastating indictment of the drug war.

"Walter Cronkite got it - and he got it early. He knew a failed war when he saw one."

It's interesting that Mr. Nadelmann uses the word "early" there. The war on drugs dates back to the Nixon administration. It received a big push during the Reagan years and got another under George H.W. Bush. We have been locking up men and women for drug offenses since the 1970s, and drug arrests are the main reason the United States has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world.

Of course, most rational people - in public opinion surveys or coffee shop conversation - agree that heroin and cocaine addiction, at the root of so much crime and social dysfunction, should be treated medically, not criminally. We have come a long way in funding treatment, but our prisons remain full.

It's people in power (politicians, primarily) who do not have the nerve to challenge all this. Objective analysis and common sense should tell them the war on drugs is futile and that the demand side of the problem needs the most effort and resources. Yet, they maintain status quo. (Two years ago, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley called drug dealing a "violent crime" while refusing to support a modest reform in the sentencing of low-level, nonviolent dealers.)

There are signs that some in power are wising up. The nation's new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, was in Baltimore this week to learn about the city's drug courts, which provide addicts with treatment instead of jail time. Mr. Kerlikowske said this will be incorporated into national drug policy.

There are those who support an end to the Prohibition-style policies of the last 30 years, but they tend to be out of office by the time they speak up: former cops and police commissioners, former officeholders and retired judges. The time of their greatest influence has passed.

That might have been the case with Walter Cronkite. He recognized that a lot of the people caught up in the drug life were not high-level drug dealers attached to violent gangs but men and women who had an addiction and who sometimes sold drugs to feed their habits. Mr. Cronkite ended up supporting Mr. Nadelmann's Drug Policy Alliance, helping raise funds to end the war on drugs. That's what earned him the Bill O'Reilly rant. In other words, the most trusted man in America was right again.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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