A guest columnist for the Lancaster Eagle Gazette in Ohio today offers a new version of President Lyndon Johnson’s famous comment, supposedly made in response to Walter Cronkite’s dire assessment in 1968 about the war in Vietnam.
As the story goes, Johnson watched the special televsion program that Cronkite prepared in the aftermath of the North Vietnamese communists’ Tet offensive in February 1968. Cronkite said the U.S. war effort had become “mired in stalemate.” And he closed program by suggesting the time had come to consider opening negotiations to end the war.
For Johnson, Cronkite’s report supposedly was an epiphany. The president realized that the war was all but lost and uttered in dismay:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Other versions have Johnson saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”
Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”
The guest columnist in the Lancaster paper has Johnson as saying: “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”
What I call acute version variability dogs this anecdote — and it’s one of the indicators that the story is a media-driven myth. Version variability of such magnitude is a signal of implausibility. And it’s a marker of a media myth.
For starters, Johnson did not see the program when it was aired. He was in Austin, Texas, at the time, offering light-hearted comments at a birthday party for Governor John Connally.
Moreover, Johnson’s supposedly downbeat reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment about Vietnam clashes sharply with the president’s aggressive characterization about the war. Only hours before the Cronkite program aired, Johnson was in Dallas, Texas, where he delivered a little-recalled but rousing speech on Vietnam, a speech cast in Churchillian terms.
It seems inconceivable that Johnson’s views would have changed so swiftly, so dramatically, upon hearing the opinions of a television news anchor.
Even if Johnson later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it represented no epiphany. Not long after the Cronkite program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.
No, the Cronkite program in late February 1968 prompted no great change. Nor did it prompt any famous presidential utterances.