The host is the university’s president, Bob Kustra, an engaging interviewer who taped the show with me last week.
That was when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite supposedly swung U.S. policy in Vietnam with his on-air assessment that the American military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations were a prospective way out of Southeast Asia.
The assessment, I write in Getting It Wrong, “supposedly was so singularly potent that it is has come to be remembered as the ‘Cronkite moment.'”
At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program about Vietnam — a special, hour-long report that aired February 27, 1968. Upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, Johnson is said to have leaned over, snapped off the television set, and told an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Or words to that effect. Versions vary. Markedly.
As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, Johnson didn’t see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House, either.
He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of the president’s long-time political allies.
About the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was saying this, about Connally’s age:
“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”
It’s difficult to imagine how Johnson was much moved by a show he didn’t see.
Even if the president did watch the Cronkite report at some later date on videotape — and there’s no evidence he did — it’s clear that Johnson did not take the anchorman’s assessment to heart. “Mired in stalemate” was no epiphany for the president.
Indeed, just three days after the Cronkite program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.
“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers….”
I noted in the interview with Kustra, that Cronkite until late in his life pooh-poohed the notion his assessment about Vietnam represented a pivotal moment.
In his memoir published in 1997, Cronkite wrote that his “mired in stalemate” assessment posed for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”
“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”
Among other topics, Kustra and I discussed the hero-journalist myth of Watergate (the notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency) and the woefully exaggerated reporting that characterized coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans.
I also noted during the interview that Getting It Wrong is best regarded as aligned with the fundamental imperative of newsgathering — that of getting it right, of seeking to obtain the most accurate version of events as possible.
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