A few minutes ago the fortieth anniversary arrived of the moment when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface. For most American TV viewers that awe-inspiring night, the voice commenting on the images that were seen over the next several hours belonged to Walter Cronkite of CBS, who died on Friday. His wholehearted enthusiasm for the space program and its accomplishments was deep and lasted throughout his life; in his 1996 autobiography A Reporter’s Life he cites the Apollo missions and the opening to China as among the accomplishments during the presidency of Richard Nixon that he admired the most.
However, Cronkite did not like what he described as the participation of RN and Vice President Spiro Agnew in “a conspiracy to destroy the press’s credibility.” On the air, as anchorman for the CBS Evening News, he did not offer an opinion directly on Agnew’s 1970 speeches criticizing television coverage of the Nixon White House or criticisms leveled by other figures in the Administration; this was left to Eric Severeid.

But in private, Cronkite, a thoroughgoing liberal, found much to dislike about the Nixon policies. And in some parts of New York City and within the Beltway, his attitudes were known.

Last year, as Barack Obama looked over his vice-presidential possibilities, former Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, published an op-ed in the New York Times reminiscing about the hours after he was chosen by his party’s convention in Miami Beach, as the delegates waited for the other half of the ticket to be selected.

McGovern says that he had already been turned down by former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Edmund Muskie, whom he had defeated in the sometimes bitterly contested primaries. After receiving the nomination, his next choice was Sen. Ted Kennedy, who declined, but suggested Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri instead.

McGovern then moved on to Sargent Shriver, but learned that the former Peace Corps director was in the Soviet Union and could not be reached before 4 pm, when the choice had to be announced. He then asked Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota (who would become Jimmy Carter’s running-mate four years later), but Mondale declined, also recommending Eagleton as the nominee.

McGovern’s next choice was Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who answered that although he would be honored to be the first Jewish nominee on a major-party ticket, he was about to get married and could not juggle a honeymoon with a national campaign. (This brings to mind the 2004 race, in which some of the supporters of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, still a bachelor in those days, were actively seeking a spouse for him in the event that he got out of the single digits in the polls.)

McGovern writes that he then telephoned Mayor Kevin White of Boston, who accepted at once, but was then vetoed by John Kenneth Galbraith (a member of the convention’s Massachusetts delegation), who claimed there would be a walkout if White was selected.

It was at this point that Frank Mankiewicz, the senior member of the McGovern inner circle, remarked: “Walter Cronkite was just named the most trusted man in America. What about him?”

The idea was tossed back and forth between those in the room, who, besides McGovern and Mankiewicz, included campaign manager Gary Hart and pollster Pat Caddell. Nowadays, when Tom Brokaw is routinely mentioned as possible Presidential timber should he ever care to emerge from retirement, and Rush Limbaugh, every four years, has to remind his legions of Dittoheads that he is disinclined to move from Florida to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue “because I can’t afford the pay cut,” it’s hard to recall a time when newspaper publishers like Frank Knox and William Randolph Hearst were the only figures in the media who received serious consideration for the White House (or, as in the case of Warren G. Harding, were actually elected).

But in 1972, it was less usual to imagine TV personalities in electoral office at a high level. True, Ronald Reagan, after years on G.E. Theater and Death Valley Days, was the sitting Governor of California, but at the time McGovern was making his choice no liberal thought that Reagan could ever reach the Oval Office. So the nominee and his associates set aside the choice of Cronkite for the vice-presidency as unrealistic.

But, says McGovern: “I later learned from Walter that he would have accepted. I wish I had chosen him.” Instead, after being turned down by Sen. Gaylord Nelson, he chose Eagleton, who later was forced to quit the ticket, then Shriver.

The idea of Cronkite being on the 1972 Democratic ticket is still an intriguing one for connoisseurs of alternate history. All through McGovern’s progress to the nomination, it was clear that despite being a South Dakotan he was having trouble appealing to middle-American voters – as Nixon staffers Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman would say, he didn’t “play in Peoria.” Could Cronkite, who’d spent his childhood in Missouri (and his adolescence and young manhood in Texas, which would have been of no small consequence were he on the ticket), have been able to reach those voters?

There’s also the matter of Watergate. In September and October of 1972, McGovern often would discuss the articles appearing in the Washington Post about the break-in and its background, but the reaction from the electorate was tepid and indifferent. That October, Cronkite devoted over half of a CBS Evening News broadcast to Watergate, but that presentation had little impact. Had Uncle Walter been able to cast aside an impartial tone and appear in commercials speaking of Watergate in the way he spoke, in 1968, of what he saw as the failure of the Vietnam War, what would have been the impact of his words?

It seems unlikely that McGovern could have prevailed even with such a revered figure on the ticket – RN’s popularity was high in the summer and fall of ’72 not just because of his trips to China and the Soviet Union, but because the economy was (temporarily) thriving. But undoubtedly the Democratic ticket would have carried more states than just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Cronkite’s presence could have secured the Northeast, California and the Northwest, and the states that were part of what was just beginning to be called the Rust Belt.

Here, it should be mentioned that the McGovern camp’s contemplation of Cronkite was not the first time that he’d been mooted as a political prospect. In 1967, Sen. Robert Kennedy reportedly asked Cronkite if he’d be interested in challenging the other New York senator, Republican Jacob Javits. And in the spring of 1980, Rep. John Anderson, as he dropped out of the GOP presidential primaries and prepared to launch an independent bid, let it be known that he would like Cronkite as his running-mate, since it was already known that the newscaster, under the policy then in effect at CBS, would soon have to retire. But Cronkite, according to an article appearing in Time, dismissed the notion:

“Oh, yes, I’ve daydreamed about [running for office],” Cronkite says. “As I’ve daydreamed about sailing around the world—or rather, not as much, because I have thought of sailing around the world.”

His thinking goes like this: “Obviously anybody in any profession has a perfect right to get into politics. But one shouldn’t as a journalist serve two masters. There’s a basic conflict of interest—it’s a bad idea. I’ve been approached by both sides. Some are sincere, but others are flatly cynical, wanting to take advantage of a name that requires no buildup, no posters. Popularity on TV might have great appeal, but I don’t have any policy on how to run the country.”

So it’s clear that when Cronkite later told McGovern that he would have accepted a spot on the Democratic ticket in 1972, he was speaking with the benefit of hindsight, after the major part of his career in the media was finished, and that it isn’t that easy to assume that he would have made the jump, not long after the halfway point of his tenure telling us the way it was. Still, the two names on a tin button seem to linger in the mind’s eye.