W. Joseph Campbell

Disputed? Use it anyway: NYTimes invokes Cronkite-Johnson myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on January 24, 2015 at 9:13 am
LBJ: Wasn't watching Cronkite

LBJ: Nothing to say about Cronkite

It’s disputed, but what the heck?

Use it anyway.

That, essentially, is how New York Times today presents the mythical tale of President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to anchorman Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment of the Vietnam War in 1968: The tale is “oft-cited if disputed,” the Times says in an article about a Univision journalist — but it repeats the dubious tale nonetheless.

As if there’s no need to let a media myth stand in the way of a useful anecdote.

The “oft-cited” anecdote centers around Cronkite’s claim, offered February 27, 1968, at the close of a special report on CBS, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out of the conflict.

Supposedly, Johnson watched the program at the White House and, upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation, snapped off the television set and told an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect: Versions vary markedly as to what the president purportedly said.

Here’s how the Times presented the anecdote today, embedded in a report about the influence of Jorge Ramos, news anchor for the Spanish-language Univision network:

“‘Remember what L.B.J. said, “When you lose Walter Cronkite, you’ve lost the war”?’ said Matthew Dowd, a campaign adviser to George W. Bush, recalling the oft-cited if disputed story that President Lyndon B. Johnson said he lost ‘middle America’ when Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War. Among Latino voters, Mr. Ramos has the sort of influence and audience that Cronkite had more broadly among Americans in his day.”

Let’s unpack that myth-freighted paragraph.

First, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. This is crucial because the power of the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote rests on the immediate and visceral effect that anchorman’s assessment supposedly had on the president. It was, supposedly, an epiphany for Johnson: He suddenly understood the futility of pressing the war in Vietnam (even though U.S. combat troops remained in Vietnam until 1973).

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time was not at the White House.

He was in Austin, Texas, attending a birthday party for a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally. And about the moment Cronkite was on television intoning his “mired in stalemate” remark, Johnson was making light of Connally’s age.

“Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

Johnson on that occasion (see photo, above) had nothing to say about Cronkite.

Second, it is impossible to square Johnson’s purportedly downbeat reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” — with his sharply more hawkish remarks made at that time about Vietnam.

Just hours before the Cronkite program aired Johnson, delivered a rousing speech in Dallas, in which he cast the war effort in Churchillian terms, saying at one point:

“There will be blood, sweat and tears shed.”

Johnson also declared in the Dallas speech, “I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam. “I believe that every American will answer now for his future and for his children’s future. I believe he will say, ‘I did not buckle when the going got tough.’”

He further said:

“Thousands of our courageous sons and millions of brave South Vietnamese have answered aggression’s onslaught and they have answered it with one strong and one united voice. ‘No retreat,’ they have said. Free men will never bow to force and abandon their future to tyranny. That must be our answer, too, here at home. Our answer here at home, in every home, must be: No retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

It is inconceivable that Johnson’s assertive, “no retreat” views about the war would have swung so immediately, and so dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor.

An opinion that was hardly exceptional, novel, or shocking in late February 1968.

By the time of Cronkite’s report, “stalemate” had become an unremarkable — and not uncommon — way to characterize the war in Vietnam.

The Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, notably in a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it, the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, filed from Vietnam, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The analysis was published on the Times front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Moreover, even if Johnson later heard — or heard about — Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, it represented no epiphany. If the president later heard — or heard about — Cronkite’s analysis, he didn’t take it to heart in his public statements.

Not long after the Cronkite program, Johnson was in Minneapolis where he delivered a hawkish, lectern-pounding speech, urging a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice,” Johnson said in the speech, in which he disparaged foes of the war as wanting the country to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

So the Times would do well to offer a correction or clarification: The Cronkite-Johnson tale certainly is “oft-cited,” but it is more problematic than merely “disputed.”

It is illusory. It is mythical.

WJC

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