Monday, July 27, 2009

Mankiewicz in fantasyland

OK, I'm starting out in the past -- responding to something two days old, which is about something almost forty years old. But it caught my eye, so:

Jack Shafer has a nice takedown of Frank Mankiewicz's claim that "Walter Cronkite could have been vice president of the United States." In short, Mankiewicz says he floated Cronkite's name for Veep in 1972, but the rest of the McGovern brain trust didn't go for it. Shafer pretty much demolishes the idea that Cronkite would have accepted it, but I'm interested in the other half of the equation: that (as Mankiewicz puts it) "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."

First things first: there's simply no case whatsoever for Vice Presidential picks having that kind of effect. McGovern didn't just lose, of course; he suffered one of the worst blow-outs in presidential election history. No VP pick was going to turn the election from blowout to squeeker.

Second, on the it really true that Cronkite would have been a powerful VP candidate? I'd say no. Yes, Cronkite polled well (as Shafer notes, in one fairly dubious poll), but of course as a partisan candidate he would immediately be subject to attacks from the Republican ticket. Moreover, since the whole basis for trust in Cronkite was his neutrality -- Cronkite was a legitimate symbol of the objective neutrality standard dominating political reporting of the time, especially at the TV networks -- it seems pretty likely that candidate Cronkite would have much going for him once that neutrality was gone. So I don't see much of a case for Cronkite as a particularly strong VP candidate, and that's before thinking about whether his particular skill set would translate well into the sorts of things that Vice Presidential candidates are supposed to do.

(There's also a long-term cost. Putting Cronkite on the ticket, if he accepted, would undermine CBS's reputation for neutrality and confirm GOP claims of media bias, which Nixon had spent quite a bit of effort on in his first term. Mankiewicz thinks that the McGovern-Cronkite ticket would have benefited from Watergate, but Nixon would have added a powerful argument during Watergate had the media been exposed in the 1972 campaign as Democratic lackeys).

Of course, Cronkite would have been better than Eagleton, at least the way it played out, but so would dozens of other options. Perhaps the McGovern campaign should have spent more time vetting the VP and less speculating about goofy VP ideas.
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