W. Joseph Campbell

He ‘did a Zhou Enlai’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on July 26, 2011 at 10:15 am

Cohen (NYTimes photo)

Roger Cohen, a twice-a-week foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, stirred murmured commentary not long by defending Rupert Murdoch as a phone-hacking scandal swirled around the tycoon’s media holdings in Britain.

“If you add everything up,” Cohen wrote about the tough, old media mogul, “he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant.”

Maybe Cohen was being contrarian. Or maybe he didn’t quite grasp what the scandal says about Murdoch and his corporate management.

In a more recent column, Cohen revealed that he’s not fully up to speed with the revised interpretation of Zhou Enlai’s famous comment in 1972 that “it’s too early” to discern the implications of upheaval in France.

The conventional interpretation is that Zhou was speaking about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

As such, his comment suggests a sagacity and a long view of history seldom matched by Western leaders.

Recent evidence has emerged, however, that says Zhou was referring not to the French Revolution but to the more recent political unrest that rocked France in 1968.

The new evidence was offered last month by Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., a retired U.S. diplomat who a was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.

Freeman discussed the context of Zhou’s remark last month at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. London’s Financial Times was first to report on the revised interpretation that Freeman offered about Zhou’s comment.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said that Zhou made the remark during a discussion about revolutions that had failed or succeeded.

He pointed out that it was clear from the context that Zhou’s “too early to say” comment was in reference to upheaval in France in May 1968, not the years of turmoil that began in 1789.

Freeman described Zhou’s misinterpreted comment as “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected,” adding that “it conveniently bolstered a stereotype … about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts.”

The misconstrued comment fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe,” Freeman said, “so it took” hold.

And it’s not infrequently repeated.

Cohen invoked the conventional interpretation late last week, in a column that began this way:

“When I asked Gen. David H. Petraeus what the biggest U.S. mistake of the past decade has been, he did a Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution number to the effect that it was too early to say.

“The outgoing commander in Afghanistan and incoming Central Intelligence Agency chief is adept at politics,” Cohen wrote, “one reason he’s the object of the sort of political speculation once reserved for Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was the face of the military to most Americans before Petraeus assumed that role later in the post-9/11 era.”

The passage, “he did a Zhou Enlai,” suggests how irresistible Zhou’s misconstrued remark really is — a quality that’s typical of quotations that seem just too highly polished.

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true,” I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Among the myths is the remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who after watching Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic, on-air assessment about the Vietnam War supposedly said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

Versions vary markedly.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote is almost certainly apocryphal.

Johnson wasn’t in front of a television when Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam aired on CBS television on February 27, 1968.

The president wasn’t lamenting the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support, either.

Rather, Johnson was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

At about the time Cronkite was saying the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was quipping:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”


Recent and related:

  1. […] 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai told President Richard M. Nixon that it was “too early to say” what would be the implications […]

  2. […] essay suggests, the conventional interpretation — the erroneous version — retains broad appeal, despite Freeman’s well-publicized […]

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