The flexibility and wide applicability of prominent media-driven myths is little short of astonishing sometimes.
As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, it is widely believed that President Lyndon Johnson essentially threw up his hands in dismay upon hearing Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment about the war.
Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might be a way out.
Johnson supposedly realized the war effort was now hopeless, telling an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Or something along those lines. Versions of what the president supposedly said vary markedly.
Today’s Jerusalem Post column offered another variation, saying that Johnson “panicked when he lost Walter Cronkite over Vietnam….”
What? How so?
As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson didn’t even see the Cronkite report when it aired late in the evening of February 27, 1968.
Johnson then was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of his long-time political allies.
About the time Cronkite was intoning his downbeat assessment on Vietnam, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age, saying:
“Today you are 51, John. 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.”
No panic there.
Nor was there any in the days that followed.
I note in Getting It Wrong that even if Johnson saw the Cronkite program on videotape, the anchorman’s assessment represented no epiphany for the president.
About three weeks after the Cronkite program, I write, “Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a ‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”
So no panic there, either.
And on the day of the Cronkite program, Johnson offered a forceful defense of his war policy, vowing in a midday speech in Dallas there would be “no retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”
Johnson declared: “We are living in a dangerous world and we must understand it. We must be prepared to stand up when we need to. There must be no failing our fighting sons” in Vietnam.
“It seems inconceivable,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “that Johnson’s views [on Vietnam] would have pivoted so swiftly and dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor, even one as esteemed as Cronkite.”
It’s quite improbable.
So, no, Johnson wasn’t “panicked” by Cronkite’s assessment on Vietnam.
Not at all.