Today’s Washington Post has an article by Frank Mankiewicz in which the political director of the 1972 McGovern campaign goes into more detail about the notion he toyed with in the hours after his candidate received the nomination one sweltering summer night in Miami Beach: to ask Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America" (according to a poll Mankiewicz had recently examined), to be the South Dakota senator’s running-mate.
Mankiewicz observes (as I recounted in my first post on this subject earlier this week) that it was Sen. Robert Kennedy who proposed, in the early weeks of 1968, that Cronkite run for the seat occupied by New York’s other senator, Jacob Javits. According to Mankiewicz, this was after Cronkite, who had turned against Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House on Vietnam, pleaded with RFK to run against LBJ; this was before the New Hampshire primary gave a shot in the arm to Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic antiwar candidacy. Kennedy replied (in Mankiewicz’s hearing), "I’ll do it, Walter, if you run for the Senate in New York." This proved unfeasible not only because Cronkite was a Connecticut resident (though RFK had not let his own status as a Virginia resident keep him from running in 1964) but because he was also a registered independent and as such did not meet the requirements to file as a Democrat.
But Mankiewicz kept the conversation in mind, and after McGovern was turned down by Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, and Ted Kennedy in turn, he brought up Cronkite’s name. The idea was dismissed by the rest of the candidate’s brain trust as unrealistic, and McGovern did not contact the anchorman.
But years later, as I mentioned earlier, Cronkite told McGovern that had he been asked to run on the 1972 Democratic ticket he would have accepted. Mankiewicz says that Cronkite also told a corporate board (on which both men served in the 1990s) that he would have agreed to the vice-presidential nod "in a minute."
Mankiewicz notes in his op-ed that at the time of the Democratic convention Nixon’s lead over McGovern had narrowed to four to seven points in some polls. He is sure that with Cronkite on the ticket, McGovern could either have won or lost by such a narrow margin that, after RN’s resignation – he evidently assumes the Watergate saga would have played itself out in the same manner – the McGovern-Cronkite ticket would have been renominated in 1976 and would have captured the White House.
This is how the op-ed concludes. But it’s worth noting that Mankiewicz does not go on to wonder if McGovern would have achieved re-election in 1980, with Cronkite succeeding him in the White House for eight years.
(This scenario is also called "Dan Rather’s Nightmare." Indeed, the most intriguing part of this alternate history is what would have happened at CBS if Cronkite had quit anchoring in 1972. Rather, at that time, did not have the prestige that he had by 1980 when he took over at CBS Evening News. My guess is that Roger Mudd, or possibly the now-forgotten George Herman, would have been the more likely person to replace Cronkite had he left earlier.)
It may be that Mankiewicz is aware that most likely, if McGovern had been "vindicated" by a near-win in 1972 and won in 1976, we would have seen a Presidency more or less the same as the Carter years, except worse – rampant inflation, friction with Congress, one misstep after another in foreign policy, with the Soviet Union gaining ground across the globe – with the same result: the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.