A commentary posted recently at the American Thinker online site invokes the hardy myth of the “Cronkite Moment,” which stems from Walter Cronkite’s pronouncement in late February 1968 about the war in Vietnam.
At the close of a special televised report, Cronkite, the CBS News anchor, declared that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations eventually would have to be opened with the North Vietnamese.
As the American Thinker item notes, Cronkite’s dire assessment supposedly prompted President Lyndon Johnson to declare, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or words to that effect. Johnson is said to have watched Cronkite’s program at the White House and is further said to have snapped off the television set in exasperation.
It all makes for a great story, a story of dramatic media influence, of telling truth to power.
But the “Cronkite Moment” is almost assuredly a media myth.
As I describe in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t even at the White House the night of Cronkite’s program on Vietnam. The president didn’t see the show when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of then-Governor John Connally. At about the time Cronkite was intoning his pessimistic assessment about Vietnam, Johnson was making 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.”