Robert Nedelkoff has noted —here and here— the remarkable revelation —first by Senator George McGovern in a 2008 New York Times op-ed, and, more recently elucidated, by Frank Mankiewicz in the Washington Post— that candidate McGovern had considered offering the 1972 vice-presidential slot to “the most trusted man in America,” CBS anchor Walter Cronkite; and, at least equally amazing, Cronkite’s later statement that he would have accepted it.
What might have been: Except for George McGovern’s (apparently erroneous) belief that he would have turned down the offer to join the ticket, America’s “most trusted man” could have had a shot at being America’s 39th Vice President.
Last Sunday on C-SPAN’s consistently superb Q&A, Brian Lamb interviewed Mr. Mankiewicz. Still going nattily strong at 84, he served back in the day as Robert Kennedy’s press secretary during the 1968 campaign, and then managed George McGovern’s 1972 run against RN.
The interview is highly recommended as an insight into the life, times, and personality of a fascinating man. More particularly, it revealed the genesis of Walter Cronkite’s opposition to the Vietnam war —which apparently began some time before he first expressed it on air, ostensibly as the result of the reporting he had just done from Vietnam— and its hitherto unknown (and, for a network anchor, its ethically dicey) extent.
LAMB: ….. Walter Cronkite had made his statement on Vietnam on his newscast. That would’ve been February the 27th, 1968. And this is only about 30 seconds. It was longer than that, but let’s just listen to a little bit of that.
WALTER CRONKITE, AMERICAN BROADCAST JOURNALIST: It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation. And for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the north, the use of nuclear weapons or the mere commitment of 100 or 200 or 300,000 more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: It was longer. He went on to say, ”To say that we were closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence the optimists who have been wrong in the past,” and it goes on.
LAMB: But my question is – he came back – when did he meet with Senator Kennedy? Was it between that moment and that moment that he announced?
MANKIEWICZ: No, I think it was before that, before …
LAMB: Before he had gone to Vietnam?
MANKIEWICZ: Well, I think he had another trip to Vietnam. I think he’d been there before.
LAMB: And when you were sitting there listening to him suggest to Senator Kennedy he had to run for president to stop the war …
LAMB: … what was going through your mind?
MANKIEWICZ: Well, I welcomed him as an ally. A lot of them on the Senator’s staff wanted him to run. Some did not. And here I thought was a pretty important fellow in America saying, ”Yes, you should run.” It may have helped him make up his mind.
LAMB: But in a bigger way or discussion, what about an anchorman for a major network getting involved in politics and the public didn’t know it?
MANKIEWICZ: Not very – it didn’t happen very often, if at all. That’s right. I was very – well, that’s one reason I favored Walter Cronkite to be the vice presidential nominee four years later with Senator McGovern. And as it turns out, as I wrote in the Washington Post, a year or two ago, Senator – Walter Cronkite told Senator McGovern that if he had only asked him he would’ve accepted. So if the ticket, in ’72, would’ve been McGovern and Cronkite, I think it would’ve been a different election.
You can read the transcript here, or follow the link to watch the program.
The deeply disturbing aspects of this situation seem only to have occurred to UVA Professor and political expert Larry Sabato. In an important article —“Are the Top Journalists Insiders or Outsiders?” — he raises questions that are as pertinent today as they would have been in ’68 and ’72.’
Decades later, everyone knows that Cronkite was a Democrat. After his retirement, he gradually made no secret of his party affiliation and philosophy. But at the time, CBS went to great pains to present him as nonpartisan, and most Americans accepted that this was true. (The other networks played the same game with their anchors, whatever their underlying political philosophy–and not all were Democrats, by the way.) Now we learn that Cronkite was prepared to run for vice president on the 1972 Democratic ticket, had he been asked.
But it is the 1967 Cronkite meeting with Robert Kennedy that stuns. Cronkite willingly became an active player in national politics, choosing a personal favorite for president and directly attempting to induce a prominent politician to run for the White House. Are we to believe that Cronkite’s private importuning had no effect on his reporting? Can anyone defend this as even vaguely ethical for a man in his position? Cronkite was a citizen, of course, and if his views on Vietnam and his preferences for president were strong, he had the option to step down as anchorman and enter the political arena in some fashion. Or he could have transitioned into a newspaper columnist or TV commentator, openly pushing the agenda of his choice. Instead, Cronkite had his political cake and ate it journalistically, too.
All of this suggests what most people have always supposed: there is a partisan predisposition among some of those at the top of the journalism profession, despite their denials. Furthermore, some elite journalists do not step back from their bias but privately seek to re-make the world as they prefer it to be.
The remarkable case of Walter Cronkite leads to certain questions. Did he do similar things in additional cases? How about other prominent anchorman and reporters of that time? Were they behind-the-scenes players while pretending to be passive observers?
And what of today’s line-up? Everyone knows the ideological predispositions of many prominent personalities at liberal MSNBC and conservative FOX. Much of the programming at these networks is more in the category of commentary than nonpartisan news–though even at these networks there are plenty of correspondents who try to fulfill the old ideal of the disinterested reporter.
How about the anchors and hosts at ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN? What about the White House reporters who have frequent, one-on-one, off-the-record chats with the presidential press secretary and the chief of staff? Are they ever asked to offer strategic and tactical advice–or do they volunteer it?–when the cameras are not on, and there are no witnesses? Is this happening now in the Obama administration and did it happen in prior Democratic and Republican administrations?
Usually these could be seen as impertinent questions, but not after the Cronkite revelations.
The reporter or anchor has classically been portrayed as the outsider, battling the establishment to deliver the truth in the public interest. In the modern day, many of these reporters and anchors have become millionaire celebrities, part of the semi-permanent floating establishment they are supposed to check. How often do they succumb to the temptation to use their fame and position to influence elected and appointed officials, or gain access as the social equals of those elected officials for self-aggrandizement?
What we’ve just learned about “the most trusted man in America” gives us the right to ask.