Vice President Walter Cronkite has a nice ring to it, and according to an op-ed in today's (July 25) Washington Post by Frank Mankiewicz—political director of George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign—it coulda, woulda happened if only other top McGovernites had grabbed the trial balloon Mankiewicz launched in July 1972, when he proposed that their candidate invite Cronkite to join the Democrats' ticket.
Mankiewicz believes that one of the late anchorman's great strengths as a potential candidate, along with opposing the Vietnam War, was that he was the "most trusted man in America." Cronkite's status as America's most trusted is bunk, as I wrote last week. It all stems from a May 1972 poll that Oliver Quayle and Co. conducted in 18 states to determine the level of public trust for candidates in contests for senator, governor, and president. (See CBS News veteran Martin Plissner's fine book The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections for the full story.) It's not clear why Quayle added Cronkite to the poll, which included the names of potential candidates as well as slots for "average governor" and "average senator," Plissner writes. Cronkite topped the survey, but a poll across 18 states that pits one broadcaster against a bunch of would-be candidates and "average" office holders is a pitiful measure of trust.
According to Mankiewicz, his Cronkite pitch "met with instant, and unanimous, disapproval." But he speculates that had Cronkite run with McGovern, they might have won in 1972 or come close to winning. And had they come close, a McGovern-Cronkite ticket would "probably" have been renominated and elected in 1976 after the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon.
In Mankiewicz's version, Cronkite would have taken the slot if offered. He writes:
Decades later, at a meeting of a corporate board on which they both served, George McGovern mentioned to Walter Cronkite that his name had been proposed as the vice presidential nominee at that stage of the campaign but was rejected because we were certain he would have turned us down. "On the contrary, George," the senator told me Cronkite replied, "I'd have accepted in a minute; anything to help end that dreadful war." At a later board meeting, Cronkite told a larger group that he would gladly have accepted the invitation to run with McGovern.
It makes a great story, but is it true? A July 28, 1972, New York Timesstory by James M. Naughton (subscription required), written after the convention, quotes McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart as saying that when the senior McGovern staff met to pick a candidate for vice president, they put "every name they could think of on the table, up to and including Walter Cronkite."
In a July 12, 2007, Dallas Morning News piece by Carl Leubsdorf, McGovern said that Cronkite later told him he would have taken the No. 2 space on the ticket "in a minute" had it been offered. Leubsdorf attempted to confirm McGovern's claim but failed. "Mr. Cronkite, 90 and ailing, did not respond to a request for comment," Leubsdorf wrote.
How ill was Cronkite in 2007? It's probably unrealistic to expect any 90-year-old to come to the phone when a reporter calls, but it's worth mentioning that the month before Leubsdorf's story appeared, Cronkite release a statement toasting Jane Pauley for winning the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism at Arizona State University. When I saw Cronkite give an address at Columbia University in February 2007, he apologized for being a little wobbly on stage, but he read his speech perfectly.
McGovern made the Cronkite claim directly in an Aug. 28, 2008, New York Times op-ed, writing, "I later learned from Walter that he would have accepted [the veep position]. I wish we had chosen him."
Would the anchorman really have accepted? In his 1996 autobiography, A Reporter's Life, Cronkite writes:
There were a couple of brushes with candidacy in which I played an innocent role. One was of little consequence. My name was apparently one of the many thrown on the table when the George McGovern forces were desperately searching for a vice presidential candidate at the 1972 Democratic convention.
Cronkite is mute in his book on whether he would have accepted the offer had McGovern made it. But he expresses sarcastic disdain about running for office. At some point in his career—unspecified by Cronkite—a group of Vassar students expressed interest in starting a "draft Cronkite for president" movement. He rejected the idea.
"I can go Sherman one step further," I wrote them. "Not only if nominated, I would not run, and if elected, I would not serve, but if perchance I did serve, I would be impeached."
If Cronkite went completely Sherman about running for president, it's hard to imagine him accepting the nomination for vice president. It just doesn't add up.
In 1980, Cronkite caused a political stir when the New Republicreported that he said he would be "honored" if asked to run for vice president by independent candidate for president John Anderson. Cronkite protested that his comments had been "misinterpreted." Yes, he would be honored to be asked, but, no, he would not run.
In a Time magazine article about the Anderson confusion (May 12, 1980), Cronkite admitted to having "daydreamed" of running for president and acknowledged that it might be "interesting to serve in the United States Senate." But, he continued:
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.
I believe George McGovern when he says that Walter Cronkite told him—long after the fact—that he would have joined the 1972 ticket. But I also believe that Cronkite lied to McGovern because 1) the assertion clashes with every statement I can find that the broadcaster ever made about running for office, 2) he didn't address the topic directly in his autobiography, and 3) he didn't respond to the Dallas Morning News two years ago to set the record straight.
If Cronkite lied, I forgive him. Everybody loves to exchange flattering, harmless falsehoods, even anchormen. However fanciful the Cronkite-for-vice-president tale may be, it wasn't only Mankiewicz who had Walter on the brain at the zany 1972 convention in Miami. Historian Michael R. Beschloss writes that rebellious delegates cast votes for Walter Cronkite—and Mao Zedong and Mickey Mouse—for vice president.
Addendum, July 27: Did anybody really vote for Mao at the Democratic National Convention in 1972? Room 8's Howard "Gatemouth" Graubard dropped me a note to say it ain't so. The link he provided to the roll call of votes, The Official Proceedings of the Democratic National Convention, 1972, explains the confusion.
A wide range of political and public figures did receive votes for vice president at the convention—Dr. Benjamin Spock, Jerry Rubin, Martha Mitchell, Philip Berrigan, Daniel Berrigan, Archie Bunker, Eleanor McGovern, Cesar Chavez, and even Richard J. Daley. The Mao myth got started when the Colorado delegation cast seven of its votes for Roberto Mondragon, the lieutenant governor of New Mexico. The clerk mistook Mondragon for Mao Zedong and read back the count to the convention:
Colorado, 14 for Senator Eagleton, three for Senator Gravel, 12 for Sissy Farenthold and seven for Mao Tse-tung.
Also contrary to Beschloss, no votes for Cronkite or Mickey Mouse can be found in the Proceedings. But CBS News reporter Roger Mudd did receive two votes, and Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, the convention's nominee for vice president, even made a crack about the newscaster in his acceptance speech.
From the 1980 Time article: "Cronkite performs in the language that Columnist Charles McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle calls Safespeak, a pudding of bland consensus wording that anchormen become practiced in." Couldn't have put it better myself. Can you? Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and monitor my Twitter feed for breaking venom. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)