The naval and air engagement in the Gulf of Tonkin in August of 1964, and its consequences, were probably the high-water mark in the rise of the unquestioned powers of the modern presidency. Indeed, the events of Tonkin raised questions which began to change the way many Americans regarded their President. At the heart of the relationship between the President and his fellow citizens was trust, and Tonkin damaged that trust. But the doubts were retrospective. No one cou1d keep up with the President at the time. The hard questioning of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came two years later; in the summer of 1964, it acquiesced totally, as did the rest of the country.
A CBS News documentary airing questions about the Tonkin Gulf incident came seven years later; in 1964 CBS, like other news organizations, endorsed the blank check LBJ wanted. Gradually the Tonkin affair came to symbolize not a model of a strong, activist presidency, but the abuse of presidential powers. At the time, the episode reflected the power of the presidency, in terms of political processes and political myth. The myth: it came after almost twenty years of Cold War, which had made the President the curator of the American national interest, the man who had all the information, to whom we gave all our trust, and who protected us from communist conspiracies. In terms of processes, the presidential reach had become longer and swifter than that of any competitor or challenger. Speed was vital to his new power: thrown into an instant international crisis, the country and the Congress had no time to inquire, no time to doubt, only time to accept. The American Air Force planes were already on their way back from the Tonkin Gulf; the President had already talked to the entire nation. He had the ability to put the Congress, and indeed the nation, in a position where they had to back him up. The President could in effect control events, or so it seemed; control the flow of information, and virtually control how the events were reported.
The television networks responded by presenting the government side, as Johnson knew they would. Even the choice of location for the incident was crucial: there was no New York Times or CBS correspondent in the Tonkin Gulf. There was no alternative source of information. The only film that was used was government film. The TV news showed the verities—or semiverities—of Johnson, McNamara, and Rusk. A case for caution in the Tonkin affair existed, but if the case could not be aired, then in the eye of the TV camera it did not exist. It was all a calculated exploitation of an event. Indeed, LBJ’s standing in the popularity polls went up, convincing him that his “reality” was indeed reality. But there was a built-in danger. His control of the media, and the readiness of the networks to march to his tune, tempted him, and his successor as well, to reach too far. Beyond the belief that he could define issues and news was the notion that he might also define events.
Among those upset by what Johnson was doing with the country and with the networks was Ed Murrow. He was sick and dying, out of the government by then, out of CBS, full of misgivings, both about the Vietnam War and about Lyndon Johnson. The night the Tonkin Gulf news unfolded on the screen, Murrow did something he had never done before. He called up his onetime protégé Fred Friendly, by then the head of CBS News, and tore into him. In the past when Murrow had been angry with Friendly, he had handled him quietly, and sometimes his silence was the most eloquent form of his anger. But this time he was in a rage. “By what God-given right did you treat it this way? What do we really know about what happened out there? Why did it happen? How could you not have Rather and the boys do some sort of special analysis?” Friendly was shocked by his anger, and felt a certain amount of it hit home, because that day he had been on the phone with the White House correspondent; Dan Rather, and Rather had said that it all seemed a bit tricky. Friendly had told Rather for God’s sake not to say anything along that line on the air. Friendly was perplexed but he simply did not know how to cover something as elusive as this, how to raise the questions. He was still, like the country, more hawk than dove, and he was apprehensive about dealing with the war. He was also in close contact with the Johnson Administration. There was some talk about coming back on the air later that night—perhaps a midnight special—but that idea was dropped.
At the same time that television was granting immense and almost unchallenged power to the President, it was granting less and less power to anyone else, particularly its own people. The role of reporter and commentator was diminishing There was less time for serious analysis, and fewer explanations of complicated stories. As the role of the reporter diminished, the role of technology grew. Film was of the essence: a bad story with good film could beat out a good serious story without film almost any time. And film demanded action. So action there would be.
In the decade beginning with the mid-fifties television began to change, and change quite dramatically, the nature and pace of American life. It speeded the pace of social protest. Television had a great deal to do with the surge of the civil rights movement. It brought black people into white homes and white people into black homes. Television simplified events and conditions; at the same time, it was deeply dramatic. Often a news show had an effect like that of live grenades thrown into people’s homes without anyone bothering to explain what had happened—and it reached a vast new national audience. If the news shows were in essence a good “page one,” there was nonetheless little explanation of all these complicated dramas and changes in American life. There was what Daniel Schorr called a “greenhouse effect”—events, personalities, fads came (and went) at an accelerated rate because of television. A saturation point came more quickly too; people were bored with a subject before an issue was solved, finished, or determined. Television heightened interest in the war in Vietnam, heightened for a time the enthusiasm for it, probably hastened the demise of it, and left people exhausted and disheartened by it long before it was in fact over. That is, the war was over in people’s minds while it was unfinished upon the battlefield.
Lyndon Johnson could manipulate the early escalation of the war in Vietnam and the news coverage of it. But he could not control what he had set loose in Vietnam, nor the news coverage that followed. For now, with the volatility of television, events had a power and force of their own. They could sweep past politicians, moving faster than the political system itself, past political scenarios and calculations. Fred Friendly, who was good with slogans and who had come up with phrase “the electronic presidency,” had another good phrase. He called Vietnam “Morley Safer’s War.”