It looked like the scoop of scoops for CBS News last night when Gerald Ford broke the news to Walter Cronkite that under certain conditions he might take the vice-presidential spot on the GOP ticket at the Republican National Convention.
This seemed all the more resounding a victory for Cronkite after a CBS News spokesman reported that ABC's Barbara Walters had stood outside Cronkite's anchor booth during the interview trying to gain access and fuming when she was denied it.
But this was to be an evening of flip flops in the extreme. All night long Cronkite and others fanned into a forest fire the hint that Ford would shatte shatter precedent by accepting second place on the ticket. He would, then he wouldn't, then he would and then he wouldn't again. Then at 12:18 Reagan himself ended all the rumors by appearing at the convention to announce George Bush as his running mate.
At 11:58 Ted Koppel of ABC told viewers "it looks more like Ford than anybody else." Two minutes later ABC's Sander Vanocur, interviewing Sen. Paul Laxalt, said it was Bush. Seven minutes later, as the Reagan motorcade crawled toward the arena in Detroit, an exasperated Cronkite rumbled, "For all I know, it's going to be Anne Armstrong by the time he gets to the hall."
By this time, Cronkite was calling for added injections of adrenaline and reporter Dan Rather was blaming the whole fracas on Henry Kissinger, who reportedly had been the chief negotiator between Reagan and Ford. Somewhere along the line, the great bandwagon had turned into a sleighride and NBC's Tom Pettit said on the air, as a post mortem, "We fell victim . . . nWe walked into the trap" allegedly set by political manipulators.
NBC's John Chancellor praised reporter Chris Wallace, here covering his first convention, for being the first to break the news that it would be Bush and not Ford, shortly before midnight.
Much earlier in the evening NBC News had reported that Bush was at the Pontchartrain Hotel grouchily having a beer. So near midnight, when one correspondent told Chancellor that it looked like Bush had the nomination but nobody knew where he was, Chancellor said, "Try the bar at the Ponchartrain Hotel."
And NBC's Chris Wallace dubbed the wild night "one of the most remarkable evenings in the history of American politics." It had begun quite remarkably in Walter Cronkite's anchor booth five hours earlier.
Inside, during the time he normally would be anchoring the CBS Evening News, Cronkite was eliciting from Gerald Ford the news that Ford had set conditions under which he would accept the vice-presidential nomination from Ronald Reagan. "I would not go to Washington, Walter, and be a figure-head vice president," Ford told Cronkite as Ford's wife, Betty, sat quietly by in the CBS booth.
This disclosure seemed to set in motion a bandwagon for Ford that gained more and more momentum among reporters and on the convention floor among delegates as the evening went on.
Walters was reportedly outside the anchor booth while the interview went on and even tried to gain admittance, demanding that a CBS employe let her in, a CBS News source said later from Detroit. "It was a little silly of Barbara," the spokesman said. According to reports Walters became frantic and angry.
Ford had promised each network a half-hour interview during convention week; ABC and NBC had already used up their time on previous nights. CBS had planned to use Ford on Monday but by a stroke of what the spokesman called "blind luck," Ford was bumped from Monday night and into the kickoff position of last night's CBS coverage, the perfect showcase for his bombshell about the vice-presidential nomination.
The disclosure gave the evening a largely unexpected and desperately needed strain of suspense that Cronkite cleverly milked all night long.
Moments after Ford unloaded to Cronkite, James Wooten of Abc nEws was telling viewers that whether or not Ford had set down conditions "we don't know." Anybody watching CBS News did know, however, for Ford had just told Cronkite in their lengthy, rambling half-hour interview.
Walters finally got her moment with the Fords on ABC about five minutes after the Cronkite interview, but although her style of interrogation was more aggressive than Cronkite's, she was not able to get any new information. The Fords repeatedly tried to break away from the interview only to be begged for one more question by Walters or anchorman Frank Reynolds.
It could be they felt that telling anything to Walter Cronkite makes it official and that to repeat themselves served no purpose.
NBC News was left completely out in the dark on Ford and lagged behind reports oozing out of CBS that Reagan and Ford were coming closer to agreement. Cronkite kept quoting unnamed sources as saying the likelihood was growing ever likelier and Dan Rather on the floor quoted no less than "the best source I've had all day" as verifying that Reagan had met "most" of Ford's demands as of about 9:45.
However, Cronkite's confidence weakened as the night wore on. And at 11:39, he quoted "a very good source, an almost unimpeachable source" as having said Reagan and Ford were now deadlocked and that the so-called dream ticket was now, Cronkite said, "only a 50-50 possibility." The odds kept going up and down throughout the coverage.
Dan Rather, the man who will replace Cronkite in the evening news anchor chair next year, and is anything but his best friend, went out of his way to gush praise of his colleague for the Ford interview. "By the way, congratualtions on what must be one of the outstanding interviews of your long and distinguished career," Rather said grandly to Cronkite as he sat his lair above the hall.
Cronkite seemed almost to be giving his own benediction to the idea of a Reagan-Ford ticket as he talked very chummily with the Fords. It was somehow as if they were visiting The Godfather and asking for his blessing.
According to reports repeated by a CBS News spokesman, Walters pounced on Ford as he left Cronkite's domain and thereby snared him for the ABC cameras. But what Ford told ABC News was at that point strictly anticlimactic.
Had Ford used CBS, its access to the American public, and the high offices of the most trusted man in America -- Walter Cronkite, of course -- to negotiate his way onto the ticket and make it very difficult for Reagan to reject him? Jeff Greenfield, a CBS commentator himself, said on the air only half an hour later that "CBS here is the medium through which this deal was cut."
Television's profile in the political process has seldom seemed higher.
The viewers of Baltimore's CBS affiliate, WMAR-TV, however, didn't get to see the Cronkite-Ford interview that conceivably could have changed the course of the convention, the campaign, and the election to come. The station chose to forgo the first hour of network convention coverage in order to air "Tic Tac Dough," a seedy syndicated game show, and a half hour devoted to the Maryland State Lottery. The station must be a haven for red faces this morning.