"Oh, my God!"
That was the vacationing Walter Cronkite's reaction yesterday when he made a routine check with his office in New York only to discover he'd been quoted in The New Republic magazine this week as saying he'd "be so honored" if asked to become John Anderson's vice-presidential running mate in the independent's quest for the presidency.
The CBS Evening News anchorman has been sailing his yawl Wyatje from its winter morning in Florida to Long Island while taking a week off from television.
When his routine call from dockside in North Carolina came in yesterday morning, it was hastily switched to the office of CBS News vice president and director of news Burton (Bud) Benjamin, who was quickly joined in the conference call by CBS News president William A. Leonard.
Shortly thereafter, CBS News issued a statement by Cronkite in which he said, "The New Republic reporter has misinterpreted our conversation.
"I have no interest in entering politics in any capacity," Cronkite's statement continued. "I have never endorsed a political candidate and I have no intention of endorsing a political candidate in the upcoming campaign, including Mr. Anderson.
"It is not the first time a political career has been suggested for me and my answer is the same as it has always been: not interested."
But New Republic executive editor Morton M. Kondracke, who interviewed Cronkite by phone last Wednesday, yesterday stuck by his version of Cronkite's endorsement of Anderson.
Leonard said yesterday that when the network learned of the report in The New Republic on Monday, he'd left word with Cronkite's secretary to notify them when the anchorman called in.
During yesterday morning's threeway summit conference via phone, Cronkite told them he "hadn't heard anything about the fuss," according to Leonard.
"Cronkite," said Leonard, "just said 'Oh, my God! Of Course, I'm not a candidate. . . he [Kondracke] totally misinterpreted the spirit of our conversation.'"
Leonard insisted that we never got around" to discussing with Cronkite the propriety of a top newsman endorsing a political candidate.
"We all knew he couldn't be deeply involved in politics and do this job CBS Evening News anchorman) at the same time.
"I never really thought it was serious, and I said, 'You can't be serious Walter.'"
Benjamin said 'Walter was astonished" by news of the New Republic story. "He hadn't heard anything on his sideband radio overnight because the airwaves were full of Cubans headed for Miami."
According to the magazine story published Monday, Cronkite, when asked by Kondracke whether he'd accept the vice presidential candidacy with Anderson said:
"Well, I don't know, I haven't been asked, I'd like to be asked before I said anything. I'd be so honored to be asked. I wouldn't turn it down. It would be the right party. I've been an independent all my life."
According to The New Republic, Cronkite continued: "I don't have any political ambition and I have considerable doubt about what I could bring to such a ticket. I don't have any great confidence that [Anderson's] got much of a chance with or without me, but I admire what he's doing.
"I admire Anderson very much. He's brought a fresh breeze to the scene."
Kondracke said yesterday that Cronkite returned his call to New York about 5 p.m. last Wednesday after he had completed the rest of his story about Anderson campaign interest in Cronkite as vice president.
"I told him about the interest in the Anderson camp over his choice as a running mate and adked, 'What do you think about that?'
"He started more or less a monologue and I was getting flabbergasted. He was kept volunteering this.
"And then finally I said, 'So you wouldn't rule it out?' and he said 'No, I wouldn't rule it out; I haven't been asked."
A spokesman for the Anderson campaign told the Post on Monday that "no one, including Cronkite, has been approached about the possibility of running. This kind of talk is premature."
The Republican congressman from Illinois has yet to select a running mate for his campaign as an independent for the presidency.