W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite Moment: What Johnson supposedly said

In Cronkite Moment, Media myths on December 6, 2009 at 12:35 pm

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.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the famous, often-cited Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is almost assuredly 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.

Johnson at Connally's birthday party

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.

WJC

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  1. [...] same goes for the comment often attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, after watching a CBS News special in late February 1968 in which anchorman Walter Cronkite [...]

  2. [...] AOL Television post recalls the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when the anchorman’s downbeat assessment about the U.S. military effort in [...]

  3. [...] I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or words to that effect. Johnson in [...]

  4. [...] That anecdote has become so wrapped in legend that it is has come to be known as the “Cronkite Moment.” [...]

  5. [...] Powers That Be was an important source, perhaps the original source, for the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, [...]

  6. [...] Or words to that effect. Versions vary. [...]

  7. [...] Or something along those lines. Versions of what the president supposedly said vary markedly. [...]

  8. [...] Cronkite did not turn the public against the Vietnam War with an on-air editorial in February 1968: five [...]

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  10. [...] Cronkite’s pronouncement, U.S. public opinion began to turn against the war. And Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968. At that time, the president was in Austin, Texas,  at the 51st [...]

  11. [...] set upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” characterization and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle [...]

  12. [...] Cronkite Moment: What Johnson supposedly said [...]

  13. [...] I further write, “may be those that can be distilled to a catchy, pithy phrase like: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Such quotations are neat, tidy, and easily remembered. Cinematic treatments influence how [...]

  14. [...] however, did not see the Cronkite program when it [...]

  15. [...] the “Cronkite Moment” turns out to be a media myth is not so surprising, I write in Getting It [...]

  16. [...] anecdote tells of Lyndon Johnson’s supposed reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in [...]

  17. [...] even see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political [...]

  18. [...] are other versions, too, of what the president supposedly said in [...]

  19. [...] my mythbusting book Getting It Wrong how accounts vary widely as to what President Lyndon Johnson purportedly said in reacting to Walter Cronkite’s on-air commentary in 1968 that the U.S. military effort in [...]

  20. [...] I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson supposedly said to an aide or aides after seeing the special report, “I’ve lost Middle [...]

  21. [...] something to that effect. Versions vary [...]

  22. [...] the Cronkite characterization stand out is that President Johnson saw the program and, as it ended, said to an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle [...]

  23. [...] A telling example of this tendency is the mythical line attributed to President Lyndon Johnson — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (or words to that effect). [...]

  24. [...] Version variability of such magnitude can be a marker of a media-driven myth, as I point out in Getting It Wrong. [...]

  25. [...] often said that Johnson watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” [...]

  26. [...] At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program about Vietnam — a special, hour-long report that aired February 27, 1968. Upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, Johnson is said to have leaned over, snapped off the television set, and told an aide or aides: [...]

  27. [...] as to what Johnson supposedly said vary quite a lot — which can be a marker of a media myth. I also point out in Getting It Wrong that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on [...]

  28. [...] Leading U.S. news outlets such as the New York Times had invoked “stalemate” periodically in the months before the Cronkite program. [...]

  29. [...] 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 [...]

  30. [...] Leading U.S. news outlets such as the New York Times had turned to “stalemate” for months before the Cronkite program. [...]

  31. [...] The “Cronkite Moment” supposedly was an epiphany for President Lyndon Johnson, prompting him to declare: [...]

  32. [...] What supposedly made the “Cronkite Moment” so powerful and memorable was its effect of President Lyndon Johnson who, upon hearing the anchorman’s assessment, purportedly exclaimed: [...]

  33. [...] In a cover story in the latest issue of American Heritage, Brinkley indicates how his biography will treat the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when the anchorman’s televised “mired in stalemate” assessment about the Vietnam War supposedly sent shock waves through the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. [...]

  34. [...] so on. (The Richmond Dispatch in a review published yesterday of Cronkite said Johnson exclaimed: [...]

  35. [...] details as a story is retold over the years. As I point out in my 2010 book,  Getting It Wrong, version variability can be a marker of a media-driven [...]

  36. [...] the larger, mythical interpretation of what Cronkite, the CBS News anchor, said about Vietnam and what President Lyndon Johnson said in [...]

  37. [...] Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or anything close to that statement.  Indeed, versions of what Johnson purportedly said vary markedly — and [...]

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