W. Joseph Campbell

‘When I lost Cronkite’–or ‘something to that effect’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews on November 20, 2010 at 9:46 am

I discuss in my mythbusting book Getting It Wrong how accounts vary widely as to what President Lyndon Johnson purportedly said in reacting to Walter Cronkite’s on-air commentary in 1968 that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

Acute version variability has taken hold over the years and, as suggested by a theatrical review in yesterday’s Washington Times, fresh versions as to what Johnson said keep popping up.

Many published accounts have said Johnson’s reaction was: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Other accounts quote the president as saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

Or: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

Or: “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

The most common published version probably is: “If I lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” It’s the version Cronkite included in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.

In any case, version variability of such magnitude, I write in Getting It Wrong, signals more than laziness and reluctance to trace the derivation of a popular anecdote. The shifting versions of what Johnson supposedly said are an indicator the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is bogus, a marker of a media-driven myth.

After all, the remarks and utterances of the president of the United States are among the most carefully chronicled. The many inconsistent accounts of Johnson’s remarks are akin to the effects of a tall tale that changes with frequent retelling.

The latest version of Johnson purported response appeared in the Washington Times review of a comedy titled Walter Cronkite Is Dead, which recently opened at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, in suburban Washington, D.C.

The play isn’t much about Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman who died 16 months ago. But the reviewer carries on about Cronkite at some length, and indulges in media myth in writing:

“Walter was regarded as the Gospel when it came to reporting the Vietnam War and his reports were instrumental in turning around the nation’s support for that war.

“Lyndon Johnson was reputed to have said of his own prospects, ‘When I lost Cronkite, I lost the election,’ or something to that effect. Not long after his observation, the beleaguered president dropped out of the 1968 electoral contest.”

Let’s consider the passages in bold: Both are dubious claims.

First, the notion that Cronkite’s views on the war in Vietnam “were instrumental” in altering public opinion.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, American public opinion had begun shifting against the war months before Cronkite offered his “mired in stalemate” assessment in special report that aired February 27, 1968.

By October 1967, 47 percent of Americans, a plurality, maintained that U.S. military presence in Vietnam was a mistake, according to Gallup surveys.

In a Gallup poll completed in early February 1968, three weeks before the Cronkite special report, the proportion saying the war was a mistake stood at 46 percent. Forty-two percent said it had not been a mistake.

As for the purported Johnson comment, “When I lost Cronkite, I lost the election”–it’s assuredly bogus. Johnson had stood in no election at the time of Cronkite’s commentary. The Democratic primary election in New Hampshire was a couple of weeks away, and Johnson would win as a write-in candidate.

More important, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired.

The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

Quite simply, Johnson could not have had “the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him,” as I write in Getting It Wrong. It’s illogical to argue he was much moved by a television report he hadn’t seen.

There is, moreover, no evidence Johnson later watched the Cronkite program on videotape.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong:

“The power of the ‘Cronkite moment’ resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date.”


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