An important reason for the myth’s hardiness is that it presents a simplified version of a supposed turning point in the long political career of President Lyndon Johnson.
The “Cronkite Moment” has it that CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite told truth to power in reporting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.
Supposedly, Johnson watched Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. Upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president switched off the television set and told an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
“President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said … after hearing Cronkite’s report, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’ Not long after that, LBJ stepped down from office, refusing to run for a second term.
“A news person had told a simple truth, and it had helped change history.”
Of course Cronkite’s report on Vietnam had no such effect on history.
There is quite simply no link between the “Cronkite Moment” and Johnson’s decision–announced at the end of March 1968–not to stand for reelection that year.
For starters, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, the president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.
At about the moment Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” interpretation, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter 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.”
So at the time of the purported “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson wasn’t agonizing about having lost Cronkite’s support; he wasn’t overcome with angst about the war effort in Vietnam.
Johnson was telling a joke.
And it’s hard to argue that the president could have been much moved by a television report that he didn’t see.
Not only that, but Johnson may have decided in 1967 or even earlier not to stand for reelection in 1968. He wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point: “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement, I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”
Given those factors, Cronkite’s show at the end of February 1968 recedes into trivial insignificance as a reason for Johnson’s decision–announced a month later–not to stand for reelection.
It certainly is an appealing notion that a newsman such as Cronkite could tell “a simple truth” and, by doing so, help change history.
But such a notion is more often the recipe for a media-driven myth than it is the foundation of historical accuracy.
Recent and related:
- Media history with Olbermann: Wrong and wrong
- On Cronkite, Jon Stewart and ‘the most trusted’ man
- ‘Lyndon Johnson went berserk?’ Not because of Cronkite
- The ‘Cronkite Moment’: That famous, dubious turn of phrase
- Mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’ is ‘believed because it’s believable’
- Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter
- Embedded myths of journalism history
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- ‘Good narrative trumps good history’
- Puncturing media myths: A case for modest media influence