The following is a transcript of the live interview conducted by Sam Donaldson with Walter Cronkite, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 2004 Distinguished Peace Leader.

Sam Donaldson with Walter Cronkite at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 21st Evening for Peace

Donaldson: I must tell you that for many of us, without meaning any disrespect to the people now doing the CBS Evening News, it will always be the Cronkite Show. Here was the leader with a bunch of correspondents that couldn’t be touched, I know because we tried to compete against him, and Robert Pierpoint who was here earlier tonight. He was one of the great horsemen that Walter depended upon on that show. Let’s get down to business. I hear people say that this is the most important election of our lifetime. Is it? What do you make of its importance?

Cronkite: I think it’s more important than our lifetime. I would think that this election is perhaps the most important in the last century, going back to perhaps the Civil War.

Donaldson: You have to explain that. Why?

Cronkite: I expect to. Why is because we have taken a 180 degree turn in our policy and foreign policy. We have adopted this incredible decision as announced by the president in his announcement of our policy future, which is a compulsory thing they have to do every couple of years. And he announced the system of preemption. With this preemption and the unilateral nature of it, as practiced by the administration very shortly thereafter, we have established a foreign policy that is unsustainable in a world that we hope will be governed by peace rather than war. As a consequence, we are on a very, very dangerous course for not only the United States but for civilization. The suggestion that one should take preemptive action if that nation believes that it is threatened by a neighbor, for heaven’s sakes, that may sound possible to sustain if you are a dominant nation such as the United States . But what do you do if you translate that same program to one of the African neighbor nations, to one of the Middle Eastern neighbor nations? As soon as you sense that you are endangered by your neighbor, you are therefore entitled, because the United States has established this wonderful concept, you are therefore entitled to go to war. What kind of a future is that for the world? It is incredibly impossible to sustain that kind of a foreign policy around the world among all the nations of the world that are entitled because of our leadership, to say, well, the United States does it, why can’t we do it?

Donaldson: Well, the president says it’s us against them, that we live in a dangerous world, we must defend ourselves and we’re gonna divide the world up between those who support our policy and those who don’t. Those who support us will be our allies, and those who don’t will pay the piper.

Cronkite: I’d say that’s one hell of a way to behave to those who believe with us, to tell them that either you’re with us or against us – either you accept what we say we will do or you cannot be part of the game. That hardly seems to me to be a foreign policy that is very practical of long endurance. It may suffice for a moment, but it’s not going to live very long in the history of our universe.

Donaldson: Walter, do you think we are safer or less safe because our strike against Iraq ?

Cronkite: Far less safe.

Donaldson: Why?

Cronkite: Because as we read every day in the press and occasionally hear on television-

Donaldson: We’ll get to that.

Cronkite: I thought you would, so I thought I’d preempt you. The problem quite clearly is that we have excited the Arab world, the Muslim world, to take up arms against us, far beyond what was being done by Al-Qaeda and others, of the terrorist groups. We have created a new body of importance in the terrorist groups who are coalescing around the Iraqi situation.

Donaldson: The president said in that famous State of the Union message in which he described the axis of evil that the United States would not stand idly by and permit nations to acquire weapons of mass destruction that threaten us, which suggests that maybe if the president maintains political power that we will then have to move against Iran. Maybe North Korea . What do you think?

Walter Cronkite at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 21st Evening for Peace

Cronkite: That is precisely the course that he has set. Actually, the truth of the matter is we do not have the military strength to take on Iran and North Korea simultaneously or even separately at this point. We have committed nearly all of the forces we have available to this enterprise in Iraq . For heaven’s sakes. This argument about a draft. That this administration would dare to assert that there is no draft in their thinking. That’s got to be an absolutely straight out lie, one of many that they have made. We cannot continue the Iraq war as it is quite clearly going to continue for quite a while and expect to be prepared to move on Iran , to move on North Korea , to even have this vaunted security and safety at home without a draft. We don’t have that kind of power in our military today. And we are being lied to when we are being told there is no thought of a draft in the Pentagon.

Donaldson: Well, it won’t be the first time we’ve been lied to by various presidents, now, Walter. It’s nothing new.

Cronkite: Well, yes, but do we really have time to go into that?

Donaldson: No. I’m not asking for a litany of lies. All right. How could the administration have so badly miscalculated after we got to Baghdad in less than three and a half weeks, militarily, from the standpoint of trying to then move forward to do something in Iraq that would bring it out all right? How come they didn’t know anything about the Middle East ?

Cronkite: I wish the hell I knew the answer to that. That’s one of the questions we have every right to ask and you’re just the guy to ask it.

Donaldson: Well, it’s easy to ask questions. But a lot of people say, fine, if they thought they wanted to do this, they did not prepare. I’m borrowing a Kerry line, I suppose. Or maybe he stole it from you. They did not prepare for the peace. They had no plan after that. They made miscalculations, did they not? And so at the point we’re at now, answer the fundamental question: We’re hip deep in the big muddy once again, as Lyndon Johnson’s time showed: how do we get out?

Cronkite: The program that I have proposed through the Democrats-I say that with, I hope everybody understands, my tongue in my cheek. I’m working both sides. My tongue is in both cheeks. I wrote a column about it and it didn’t get printed anywhere, but it was a great column. I proposed what I would like to hear the Democratic candidate say. My proposal was that he would say that one of the first steps he would take upon moving into the Oval Office, besides changing the furniture around a bit, would be to organize a panel of retired generals who have come out during the various discussions of the Iraq War against what has been going on in Iraq, the entire lack of planning, inadequate number of troops, all of the things that these retired generals have come on television to report on. He would organize this panel and would tell them he wanted their plan for us to get out of Iraq with honor, to get our troops home and to have them do this within the next six months. I can imagine, I would say if I were the candidate, what would happen in America as those boys and girls came home. Every Broadway, every Main Street would be festooned with American flags. We would welcome those boys and girls back in every town and community of America . They would be honored as they’ve never been honored before. But more than that, we’d be sure that everyone of those people would be entitled to an education that we would pay for to help pay them back for their service. Furthermore, we would supply a fund so that every professional person serving in the reserve, in the National Guard, who was called up and lost his practice in the law or dentistry or whatever would get financial help to restore that practice he had when he went away. Every businessman, every single small businessman who lost his business because he was called up and kept there longer than he should have been kept anyway, that individual would get financial help. I would put these people back on their feet because they’re entitled to it.

But we would go further than that, of course. We would then begin to put together the codicil for peace that this nation would follow in the future. And that codicil for peace would be a vastly different thing than our present foreign policy. The very first thing we would do would be to reverse 180 degrees our attitude towards the United Nations. We would put our full force behind the United Nations. We would do everything we can to bring the United Nations into the position of power that it should have. We are going to have to someday in the attempt to make an international organization of this kind work. Our only real hope of establishing a lasting peace is that such an organization will work. That would mean the United Nations would have legislative power, judicial power and military power to say this is the road to peace and we will hold peace. Now that is going to require-I see your tongue moving toward your check.

Donaldson: Towards my mouth, my lips.

Cronkite: But let me say what that requires. I know what it requires and you know what it requires, and you’re about to hang me with it. What this requires is an understanding of the American people that we can only assure world peace through an international organization if we are willing to surrender some of our sovereignty.

Donaldson: You’re right, Walter, you guessed my question. Both candidates, not just President Bush, but Senator Kerry, say in almost the same words, “I will never give another nation veto power over the security of the United States.” And the crowds cheer. So how are you going to convince the American people that we should in fact obey the rule of international law?

Cronkite: As with almost everything else to be solved with our national being and for world peace, it’s going to require a lot of education. We begin with that. We’ve got to improve our educational system to the degree that we have a literate society to which you can appeal with a reasonable argument rather than the passion of the moment or the passion of the past that has to be preserved. That won’t work. We have to have a revolutionary change. You know, Tom Jefferson, old Tom said at one time that the nation that expects to be ignorant and free, expects what never can and never will be. We are on the precipice of being so ignorant that we cannot function well as a democracy.

Donaldson: And that is a terrific segue to our business. We have distinguished members of the educational community here with great universities and all that. But our business, the news business, tap into it. Are we helping in this process that you describe today?

Cronkite: No. We’re not participating in it at all.

Donaldson: What happened to us?

Cronkite: Well, what happened was cable. Not actually what the cable people are doing, but the fact that there is such a profusion today of various cable channels and cable stations that they have drastically reduced the audience for the traditional networks, that is, the old timers NBC, ABC, CBS. They have so reduced their income that they do not dare to do anything except the cheapest kind of entertainment programming. And they will not give an adequate amount of time or consideration in any other way to informing the American people of the problems of our time. They’re not helping to educate the people in any way. Now, that is in parallel, if you will, with the failure of our educational system. We have now wasted so much money with cutting the tax rates of the rich in this country that we do not have enough money left to be sure that no child is left behind. We’ve got so many children left behind today, it’s unbelievable. We’re not able to build the schoolhouses that are needed, but most of all we’re not able to pay our teachers what they deserve. These are the people we have employed to raise this educational level of the American people to the degree that we do not fall to Thomas Jefferson’s forecast; that we are an intelligent people that can understand the issues of the day and vote accordingly. We are in a position today that we cannot do that job. We literally cannot pay teachers what they’re worth. Now, where do we go from here? I hope you’re not going to ask me the next question, where do we go from here?

Donaldson: Where do we go from here, Walter? Where do we go from here, Walter? Answer the question!

Cronkite: Well, God knows. And unfortunately, since only God knows, that means only Bush knows.

Donaldson: Remember this. Someone once said, God takes care of fools, drunks and the United States of America .

Cronkite: And perhaps the Democratic party.

Donaldson: Well, let’s cover that point. You wrote earlier this year in a column about the political campaign, and you said religion ought not to be an issue in the political campaign.

Cronkite: Absolutely.

Donaldson: But it is.

Cronkite: Of course it is. It’s being exploited very successfully, I’m afraid, by the Republican party, and the group of evangelicals who have helped finance this effort to make religion an issue in the campaign, in the election.

Donaldson: You don’t think God favors one party over the other, that God gets into the tax code? Maybe he has an exemption there, who know?

Cronkite: I used to think that God took part in contests at one time or another, until the Boston team won a couple of nights ago.

Sam Donaldson at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 21st Evening for Peace

Donaldson: David Krieger said that our job is to tell the truth, bring the truth to people. But when we attempt to do that by fact checking ads, by fact checking what candidates say, we’re accused of being partisan, we’re accused of getting into the contest. What do you think our job is? How should we handle a political contest like what’s going on today?

Cronkite: I think you’ll agree with me almost immediately. I dodge the question in a sense. We are never going to be able to do it unless the networks, and I’m talking about our traditional networks again, give us enough time to devote to information transmission to the people. Those half-hour evening news programs, as you know only too well, are vastly inadequate. After the commercials, the lead-ins, the lead-outs and all that, we’ve got something like 16 or 17 minutes at the most. We’ve got one of the most complicated nations in the world with our vast numbers of special interests across our broad nation. We are presumably a great leader of a world that is incredibly complex today, more than probably any time in recent history at any rate. And to think that we can tell just the essentials that happen in that world, that domestic world, that international world, in 16 minutes is ridiculous. We can’t do it. Now then, you and I for all of our careers with our networks have hoped for prime time. We are in this mixed time, evening time from 6:00 to 6:30. We all wished for years for prime time in which to do news or documentaries. We finally got it three or four years ago. So what do we do with these magazine shows? Sex, crime, the oddball events of the world. Nothing serious in those programs. What would happen if our networks would devote those magazine prime time magazine hours that they do to instant documentaries? Suppose that you have got the headlines at 6:30 and you came up with 60 Minutes Wednesday night for an hour and at that time, by golly, you saw a documentary and a panel of experts and so forth that would explore the problem that we revealed at 6:30. We would advise this nation, we would educate this nation in a manner in which it has never been educated before. We would use television the way people dreamed that television would be used when we first had the tubes on the market.

Donaldson: I’m with you, Walter, but you know what would happen is the bottom line network bosses, the people who own us now, would say, “We can’t put that on because we won’t get a mass audience. Someone over here has gotten hold of the Paris Hilton tape and put it on and that’s where all the eyeballs are.”

Cronkite: That’s exactly what they’d say.

Donaldson: That’s exactly what they are saying.

Cronkite: Not only would they say it, they’d do it.

Donaldson: But you’re talking about the evening news. I remember where in the fall of 1972, you did two long Watergate stories two nights in a row, 7, 8, 9 minutes apiece. That doesn’t happen anymore. Why not?

Cronkite: Well, that gets into a more difficult problem. I don’t know the why not because it could be done. We did those two programs, one on Friday night and one on Monday night and, actually, they were even longer than 6 or 7 minutes each. They were 17 minutes, one of them, the first one, Friday night. This was my concept. This was just before the election of that year and Watergate had been in all the headlines for three or four months and then it had suddenly died out because that’s the way stories work for the press. We had told all of it. The Washington Post team had not come up with any new revelations. Deep Throat, if there was one (I won’t start that argument), hadn’t come up with anything. As a consequence, as things work in the press, the story moved from the front page to page 3 to page 7 to page 9 to the comic page with a two liner, and I was determined that we were going to remind the American people of the Watergate story before we went to the polls a couple of months later. So we put together this review of Watergate and we went deep into the documentary type stuff. We put together and made a pretty good piece out of it. The problem was, of course, that we put it out on a Friday and practically before we were off the air, the White House – the group who had done all of this, Nixon’s group – was on the phone to Bill Paley, the chairman and owner of CBS, and was demanding that we abandon the Monday piece and, a matter of fact, they wanted a special done to correct the mistakes we had made in the piece we had done. Paley, of course, panicked, I would say, for the moment and called Dick Salant, the head of CBS News who was a brilliant man.

Donaldson: Lawyer, good lawyer.

Cronkite: Oh, terrific, terrific. He had to listen to Paley, of course, and Paley was saying you have to do something about this, the White House is on us, it’s very difficult, you can’t do that Monday piece. Salant was saying, well, I’ll work on it, I’ll work on it. Meanwhile Frank Stanton was calling and others were calling. The pressure was on. Salant, being as brilliant as he was, when he came to us, he came to us from the counsel’s office at CBS. Eric Severeid and all of us practically were going to quit because we thought that the management was sending in this lawyer who was going to suppress us and only be the spokesman for management. He turned out to be the greatest journalist I’d ever known in his sense of honesty, integrity and telling the full story regardless of where the chips fell. He was a tremendous man.

Donaldson: So even though you had to cut it down, you did run the second piece?

Cronkite: What happened was that Salant was smart enough to compromise and he called Paley and he said we’ve taken care of it, Mr. Paley. We’re gonna cut the length of the piece on Monday. Well, we did. We cut a few minutes out of a long piece, but Paley was satisfied with that and was able to answer the White House by saying, “We’re cutting it down on Monday.” That didn’t please the White House, of course. They kept insisting that we had to cancel it. But Paley stood firm on that one.

Donaldson: I just remember that. Walter, you could spend all evening doing it, but very quickly, handicap the next nine days and if you care to make a predication about who’s going to win, make it.

Cronkite: I really am not prepared to. I don’t know. I think it’s that close. I can’t remember an election in which I didn’t think I could call it in advance until this year.

Donaldson: Why is it this close?

Cronkite: I think it’s this close because there is a huge body of people who would wear the “Anybody but Bush” pin who, at the same time, are not intrigued by Kerry. I don’t think he has made the impression that he needs to make to assure a victory. He’s managed in these three debates to bring himself back to even, almost even, but not overwhelmingly in the lead. I have been disappointed myself in his candidacy. You know, you and I made a lot of comments. I remember some of yours and if I don’t remember them, I’m making them up anyway.

Donaldson: I’ve made a lot of dumb predictions, if that’s what you mean.

Cronkite: Not predictions, but we made fun of the fact that we ourselves were talking about charisma being a feature of presidential elections since television came in, that television had changed the whole balance of election campaigning because it injected this feature of charisma.

Donaldson: Well, it has, hasn’t it?

Cronkite: It has. And that’s what I was going to say, that we have to invoke that name, that charisma identification in the case of the Democratic candidate. He does not have charisma. That is a difficult thing to overcome and meanwhile, without the charisma that he needs, he has, I think, not done a very good job of campaigning. It took him too long to get away from the litany of mistakes that this administration has made and get down to the program that he himself would substitute. I think that’s what people want to hear. What would he do? And we really still haven’t gotten a very clear picture of the program with which he would come in to the White House.

Donaldson: But we know the President’s program. Is it a case of better the devil we know than the devil we don’t know, for some people? We know what George W. Bush will do. More of the same.

Cronkite: I know and I find it hard to believe that there’s anybody that would vote for that.

Donaldson: Half the country . And with that, would you do something for us that I think everyone in the room would love to have you do one more time. Will you sign off! With your famous sign off!

Cronkite: And that’s the way it is, Saturday, October 23, 2004. Goodnight.