Cronkite’s assessment supposedly was so exceptional, so influential on American policy and politics, that it has come to be call the “Cronkite Moment.”
“Walter Cronkite’s on-air report from Vietnam — which the president did not see — supposedly elicited his famous lament: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’ Shortly thereafter, Johnson would make his most memorable television appearance, announcing that he would not run for president in 1968.”
How’s that? Johnson “did not see” the Cronkite report; even so, it packed such wallop that Johnson knew without watching that he had “lost Cronkite”?
Who’s editing this stuff?
Not only is that passage confused and illogical: It’s historically inaccurate.
Let’s unpack the passage:
- Cronkite’s report was aired February 27, 1968, on CBS television. In closing, the anchorman offered the comparatively mild assessment that U.S. forces were “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — an assessment reflecting the conventional wisdom that had been circulating for months among the news media in Washington and Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.
- Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report: When it aired, the president was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John B. Connally, a long-time political ally.
- There’s no persuasive evidence or documentation that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or anything close to that statement. Indeed, versions of what Johnson purportedly said vary markedly — and such variability can be a marker of a media-driven myth.
- Nearly five weeks after Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic party’s nomination for president. But Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war had nothing to do with Johnson’s decision not to stand for reelection (see below).
In the days following Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary, Johnson remained outwardly hawkish about the war in Vietnam. In mid-March 1968, for example, he traveled Minnesota to deliver a rousing speech in which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.
Johnson punctuated his remarks in Minnesota by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air. “We love nothing more than peace,” he declared, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” The president disparaged critics of the war as being inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”
Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection stemmed from at least two sources: his health and his rivals for the Democratic nomination for president.
There’s evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967 or before, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency in part because of concerns about his health. “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement,” Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point, “I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”
Johnson’s announcement not to seek another term came after insurgent Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy had won more than 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary on March 12, 1968, and after had Johnson nemesis Robert F. Kennedy had entered the race for the Democratic nomination on March 16.
Johnson, moreover, was facing near-certain defeat in the Wisconsin primary, on April 2, 1968.
Those were considerations weighing on Johnson on March 31, 1968, when he said he would not seek reelection. Cronkite’s remarks about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, were not a factor.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Media myth outbreak abroad: ‘Cronkite Moment’ goes viral
- Chris Matthews invokes the ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in NYT review
- A glowing, hagiographic treatment of the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- WikiLeaks disclosure no ‘Cronkite Moment’
- Mangling the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- That awesome ‘Cronkite Moment’
- ‘Lyndon Johnson went berserk’? Not because of Cronkite
- Cronkite, secret antiwar collaborator? Seems a stretch
- What ‘lesson’ from Cronkite?
- ‘Mired in stalemate’? How unoriginal of Cronkite
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’