By Frank Mankiewicz
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Walter Cronkite could have been vice president of the United States, and that would have both ended the war in Vietnam with some dignity and prevented Watergate from becoming "our long national nightmare."
It's not even a long story. In 1972 I was political director for the presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern. That July, just as a rather chaotic Democratic National Convention in Miami agreed to make McGovern the party's nominee, I convened a group of top campaign officials to come up with some options for the candidate to consider as his running mate. Armed with a poll showing Walter Cronkite to be the most trusted man in America, I proposed that the senator put forward Walter Cronkite for vice president.
My idea met with instant, and unanimous, disapproval. He'd never accept, and we'd look bad, colleagues said. Our candidate would seem to be grasping at straws, I was told. McGovern was still very much in the race: Polls showed us five to seven points behind President Nixon. The consensus was that we needed a mainstream political figure, acceptable to most of the Democratic constituencies. We came up with a few names, led by Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. Eagleton had a lot going for him: He was antiwar, Roman Catholic, supported by labor, had a good record in three or four statewide elections. He was also free of scandal.
I had proposed Cronkite for two reasons, both of which seemed particularly valid in that campaign, dominated as it was by fierce opinions on the Vietnam War. First, although McGovern was in his second term as a senator, he had not attracted much notice except for his antiwar stance -- save in South Dakota, where it was largely unpopular. By contrast, Cronkite, despite being known by virtually all Americans -- certainly those of voting age -- was widely respected but was wholly outside of politics. Here was a fresh face, someone who could attract the increasingly large number of non-voters and was considered by Americans to be a reliable news source.
I also knew Cronkite to be strongly antiwar. In the late 1960s, just after he returned from a long visit to Vietnam, Cronkite had sought a meeting with Sen. Robert Kennedy. I sat in as Kennedy's press secretary. The meeting was understood to be off the record, and no one else was present.
Cronkite began with an acknowledgement of Kennedy's desire not to run for president but pleaded with RFK to change his mind and to announce his intention to seek the White House right away, even though the election was more than a year off.
You must announce your intention to run against Johnson, Cronkite urged, to show people there will be a way out of this terrible war. Kennedy listened intently and asked Cronkite his opinion of the battlefields he had seen. The war can't be won, Cronkite told him. What we gain on the battlefields and in the body count during daytime, he said, we lose to the villagers at night.
The people may not want the Viet Cong, he said, but to an even greater degree they simply don't want us.
RFK listened thoughtfully and then, with the beginnings of a smile, said: Walter, I'll run for president if you'll agree to run for the Senate from New York. Cronkite replied that he could not do so -- he lived, after all, in Connecticut, and he was registered as an independent and could not compete in a Democratic primary.
The discussion went no further, but I firmly believed that Cronkite was both strongly opposed to the war and not entirely averse to a political campaign himself.
A few years later, in 1972, I had no allies among the top McGovern operatives. We settled on Eagleton, an ideal nominee by all the normal standards. The senator, alas, had neglected to tell us he had been hospitalized three times for what he termed "melancholy," a condition for which he had received electric shock treatment. He had to leave the ticket, and the resulting crisis over a replacement cost McGovern heavily; indeed, pollsters said it doomed his campaign.
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.
My suspicion is that if the ticket had been
McGovern-Cronkite instead of McGovern-
Eagleton, McGovern might well have won that 1972 election, or at least have made it close. Had the latter happened, after the forced resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, McGovern probably would have been triumphantly renominated -- and elected -- president in 1976, with the most trusted man in America at his side.
The writer, a vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton's Washington office, was press secretary to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and director of Sen. George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign.