President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite’s 1968 CBS News special on Vietnam — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” — makes a year-end appearance in the Newark Star-Ledger‘s television column.
The column offers a “look back at some of the notable people from the world of television who died” in 2009. Among them is Cronkite, the retired CBS News anchor who died in July.
The column says Cronkite represented the “gold standard of TV anchormen” and “was so respected and powerful in his ’60s and ’70s heyday that Lyndon Johnson reportedly said (after Cronkite delivered an editorial against our presence in Vietnam), ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’”
As is discussed in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Johnson did not even see the Cronkite program on Vietnam when it aired February 27, 1968. (Near the end of that 30-minute report, Cronkite said the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might be considered to settle the conflict.)
At the time, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, where he engaged in light-hearted banter with his longtime political ally.
“Today you are 51, John,” the president told Connally. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”
Even if Johnson later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s downbeat assessment, it represented no epiphany for the president.
Indeed, not long after the program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.
That speech was delivered March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:
“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”
He disparaged critics of the war as being inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”
Those remarks are difficult to square with the president’s supposedly downbeat and self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam.
So even in the weeks immediately following the Cronkite program, Johnson remained outwardly hawkish on the war in Vietnam. The Cronkite program was neither decisive nor pivotal to his thinking on Vietnam.
Happy New Year.