In 1968, Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam with a reporter's conviction: "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." Others had reached the same conclusion earlier, but it took television and Cronkite -- a powerful combination -- to really make the difference. In the video age, it takes an anchorman to sound retreat.
Now the same network -- CBS -- may have done something similar. Bill Moyers, just back from Newark, has reported on what he found there. In a documentary called "The Vanishing Family -- Crisis in Black America," he says that the inner- city black family is almost no more. Children beget children, and they, in turn, have others. Kids are raised only by their mothers, and fathers take no responsibility for their children. One man Moyers talked to had six children with four different women. He recited his accomplishment with a grin you wanted to smash a fist into.
The disintegration of the poor black family has been reported before. It is not news that 60 percent of all black children are born out of wedlock, nor is it news, in the words of Moyers, that "in the black inner city practically no teen-age mother gets married." The news is that the one-time press secretary to Lyndon Johnson is saying this. If Cronkite was the spokesman for the cautious center, then Moyers is -- at least by repute -- the voice of Great Society liberalism. He suggests it's gone off the track.
The first finger Moyers points is at the welfare system. In his interviews, he asks single mothers and vagabond fathers if their life styles would be possible without welfare. They all say no. The women live for the monthly checks, and their men, fathering babies on commission, come around for their take. The second finger Moyers points is at contemporary values or, more precisely, the lack of them. Men proclaim their masculinity through irresponsibility. Illegitimacy is commonplace and without shame.
Years ago certified liberals did not talk this way. They scoffed at the notion that welfare corrupted values and that values had anything to do with the plight of the poor urban black. That was the talk of conservatives, even of racists. Liberals talked programs. They talked jobs. They talked schools, and if they needed to answer criticism, they could hold up the historical cross of slavery, and the right- wing vampires would beat a retreat.
No more. That's a good thing, and more power to Moyers for bringing the message home via the mouths of inner-city blacks. But if there was always a core of truth to the conservative message, then there is one to the liberal message as well. Since 1973, welfare grants of all kinds have been eroded by inflation, and yet the problem of illegitimacy has worsened. If, as conservatives believe, people will do what makes economic sense to them, then babies are being born in the ghetto for reasons having little to do with welfare.
As for the ghetto male, he makes a poor witness to his own plight. His exaggerated manliness testifies to his inability to be an economically functional man -- to work, to provide for his children. The street ethic dresses up economic reality like a poor man's one good suit. There are few jobs in the ghetto. A man finds his self-respect where he can.
Moyers went where many social welfare thinkers have already been. No longer is welfare dismissed as a possibly corrupting influence. No longer is the importance of values denigrated. But if there is truth to this, then there is truth also in the proposition that the ghetto's problems are economic as as well as spiritual. Now, though, it is that message that's being ignored. The White House is mum on the subject, Congress miserly -- the entire political leadership off on a snooze. The cries of children go unheard.
Moyers has provided a service. The camera showed what the scholars have been writing, and his troubled face is one of a man who has come face to face with the truth -- and it's not what he once thought. But if liberals can revise their thinking, then so, too, should conservatives by opening the government's purse for economic programs. After all, if you want people to have middle-class values, then at least offer them the chance to lead middle-class lives.