Sighting the “Cronkite Moment” is fairly easy game.
After all, few media-driven myths are invoked as routinely or as matter-of-factly as the legendary occasion when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite altered U.S. policy with his downbeat, on-air assessment of the war in Vietnam.
The “Cronkite Moment” stems from a special report that aired February 27, 1968. At the end of the half-hour show, Cronkite intoned that the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might eventually offer a way out for American forces.
At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s closing remarks, reached over and snapped off the television set, declaring:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Or words to that effect: Versions vary as to what the president purportedly said.
The commentary–which discussed former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent criticism of President Barack Obama–opened by invoking the “Cronkite Moment,” stating:
He was in Austin, Texas, on the campus of the University of Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.
About the time Cronkite offered his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was joking 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.”
It wasn’t the most humorous joke ever told by a president. But Johnson clearly wasn’t throwing his hands up in despair about his failed war policy.
He wasn’t lamenting “If I’ve lost Cronkite….”
There is, moreover, no evidence that Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape.
“The power of the ‘Cronkite moment,'” I write in Getting It Wrong, “resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.”
But even if Johnson later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it represented no epiphany for him.
Not long after the program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. So in the days and even weeks immediately after the Cronkite program, Johnson remained publicly hawkish on the war.
What’s more, Cronkite’s assessment about the U.S. predicament in Vietnam was scarcely original or exceptional in early 1968.
Jack Gould, the New York Times’ television critic, noted in a review of the Cronkite’s program that the anchorman’s assessment “did not contain striking revelations” but served instead “to underscore afresh the limitless difficulties lying ahead and the mounting problems attending United States involvement.”
It’s revealing to note that nearly seven months before the “Cronkite Moment,” the New York Times published on its front page as analysis that said victory in Vietnam “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.” The Times analysis was published in August 1967 beneath the headline:
“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”
As for Johnson’s announcing he would not seek reelection, Cronkite’s program was a non-factor in that decision.
Johnson’s announcement came at the end of March 1968, a month after Cronkite’s program–and a couple of weeks after the president’s poor showing as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire.
What’s more, there’s strong evidence that Johnson never intended to seek reelection, that he had privately decided in 1967, or even not sooner, against another campaign for the presidency.
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