Few tales in American journalism are as hardy as the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” that occasion in late February 1968 when an on-air commentary by CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite altered a president’s thinking about the war in Vietnam.
The purported “Cronkite Moment” is so trenchant, so believable and revealing that it lives on as a timeless example of the power of the news media–of how effective they can be as forces for truth-telling.
Problem is, the “Cronkite Moment” is illusory.
As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the anecdote is dubious and improbable on many grounds.
“President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, referring to diminishing support from pivotal 1960s news anchor Walter Cronkite, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”
The anecdote centers around Cronkite’s special program on the Vietnam War, a show that aired February 27, 1968. Near the end of the report, Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” and suggested negotiations with the communist North Vietnamese as a way to end the conflict.
At the White House, Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite program. Upon hearing the anchorman’s assessment, the president supposedly snapped off the television set and told an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
The anecdote’s broader point is that Cronkite was such an honest and trusted figure that his views could sway opinions of thousands of Americans. And with Cronkite having gone wobbly on Vietnam, the Johnson White House supposedly reeled.
But the Cronkite program on Vietnam quite clearly had no such effect.
Johnson didn’t see the show when it aired. He wasn’t in front of a television set; nor was he at the White House.
The president that night was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.
At about the moment Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” commentary, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally and his age.
“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.”
Earlier that day, Johnson has delivered a rousing speech in Dallas, in which he cast America’s role in Vietnam in Churchillian terms.
“There will be blood, sweat and tears shed,” the president declared, adding: “I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam.
Even if the president did see the Cronkite program, or was told about the show, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine how his mood could have swung so abruptly, from vigorously defending the war effort to throwing up his hands in despair.
But if the “Cronkite Moment” is to be believed, that’s what happened: An abrupt, dramatic, and decisive change of heart occurred within hours of the president’s hawkish speech in Dallas.
And that’s just not likely.
Recent and related:
- Mangling the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- On Cronkite, Jon Stewart and ‘the most trusted’ man
- ‘Lyndon Johnson went berserk?’ Not because of Cronkite
- Embedded myths of journalism history
- Turbulent times and the myth of ‘bra-burning’
- Going international: Myths travel far, well
- Discussing ‘Getting It Wrong’ at a special place