The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Parkland shooting victims are the most trusted people in America

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez. (Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

Chris Matthews is host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” and author of “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit.”

Fifty years ago, CBS’s Walter Cronkite stepped from his role as objective TV anchor to call for a negotiated settlement of America’s war in Southeast Asia.

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he said in his broadcast of Feb. 27, 1968. “. . . For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.”

Coming from Cronkite, those words came as a shocker, not least to the man leading us in the war. After watching, President Lyndon B. Johnson is famously reported to have told aides: If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.

What gave Cronkite such credibility was his years as a calm, reassuring presence on the evening news. He was the anchorman most remembered for telling us the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. More than deliver the news, he seemed to share it with us. In addition to being a reporter, he was an American, carrying both our history and national feeling.

There was something else about Cronkite: his authenticity. It lay in his backstory. Many of us knew his history as a wire-service reporter in World War II. We knew that his recent tour of Vietnam was that of a seasoned war correspondent, someone who knew the look and horror of the battlefield. This wasn’t an armchair general’s assessment.

Who, on this half-century anniversary of Cronkite’s commentary, can match his credibility and authenticity?

I nominate the students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association has attacked the “media.” But his real targets are the eyewitnesses to the horror at that school. Those are the people who have brought a new credibility in the national discussion. They are the young veterans with back-from-the-front authenticity.

Consider the Parkland, Fla., teacher Greg Pittman and what he has had to say about carrying a handgun into class with him: “One, where do I put the gun? Do I put it in my pocket in a holster? In my desk? Is it locked up somewhere? . . . I am in the profession to teach. I did not sign up to be SWAT, to be a policeman.”

Christine Emba

counterpointWhy do Americans want guns? It comes down to one word.

Or the student Chris Grady on how he’d react to a teacher coming to class with a concealed weapon: “That’s pretty much all I would be thinking about. You know, I know most teachers are incredible people who just want to teach, but you never know when a teacher might have a bad day or if one of them snaps and they take it out on their students. It’s just a very uncomfortable thought knowing that my teacher has a weapon that could cause death.”

What caught my attention early about these witnesses to tragedy — the shooting deaths of 17 students and adults in their midst — was the language they employed. It hasn’t been left vs. right or even gun control vs. “the right to bear arms.” It has been something different. The survivors of Parkland don’t criticize lawmakers for disagreeing with them. They nail them for speaking so dishonestly.

Cronkite spoke of politicians selling us on the “silver linings” in the nightly body counts from Vietnam. The eyewitnesses from the high school in Parkland call the talk of arming teachers “BS.” And there’s a reason their witness resonates. They are the students who will never forget what it felt like to see their classmates shot dead. They are the teachers who devote their careers to the education and well-being of these teenagers.

It’s not “the media” the NRA is worried about. It’s these students and teachers. They are the country’s trusted correspondents. They are the Cronkites of this story. They are the ones telling us, as he did, “the way it is.”

Read more on this topic:

Elizabeth Bruenig: The best strategy for the Parkland students: Go on strike

Colbert I. King: You can do something about guns. In the voting booth.

Catherine Rampell: We know who really rules the Gunshine State

Christine Emba: We all know what guns are really for

Eugene Robinson: Don’t let the absurd ploy to arm teachers distract you