MEMOIR | MEDIA
Times of Tumult and Trust
A veteran anchorman looks back at the heyday of TV journalism.
THE PLACE TO BE
Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News
By Roger Mudd
PublicAffairs. 413 pp. $27.95
"Half the trick," Bobby Kennedy confided to Roger Mudd during a campaign stop in Eureka, Calif., in the spring of 1968, "is to look like you're having fun." Though the TV newsman always remembered Kennedy's advice, he seldom practiced it; Mudd's demeanor as CBS News's Capitol Hill correspondent and regular substitute for Walter Cronkite remained "glowering and grim," as he admits in his new memoir. This failing partly explains why the former PhD candidate with the booming baritone, icy blue eyes and proud mastery of parliamentary procedure lost out to Dan Rather, his flashier colleague, in their decade-long duel to succeed Cronkite on the evening news.
Americans under the age of 30 may have no memory of a time when "anchorman" connoted not some buffoonish Will Ferrell creation but the nation's most trusted figure. "If I've lost Cronkite," Lyndon Johnson fretted during Vietnam, "I've lost middle America." And in those days, CBS News dominated the capital the way the Yankees once owned autumn. Mudd's The Place To Be brilliantly captures an era when war, protests, riots, assassinations and scandals rocked America and a newly ascendant medium transmitted images of the upheaval in real time.
A D.C. native, Mudd set his course in 1953, at 25, when he finished a master's degree in history and took a job on the rewrite desk of the Richmond News Leader. As a trained scholar, he treated facts with care and was a talented, if slow, writer. Soon he leapt to the News Leader's radio station and from there to WTOP-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington, where he caught the eye of the network's chief correspondent in the capital, the late Howard K. Smith. Recruited by Smith in 1961, Mudd made the Washington bureau his professional home for 19 years.
But The Place To Be is largely a tribute to Bill Small, who became bureau chief in 1962. It was Small who hired the fearsome roster of "cutthroat" TV correspondents who became household names: Rather and Mudd, Eric Sevareid, Harry Reasoner, Marvin Kalb, Daniel Schorr, Fred Graham, Bruce Morton, Bob Schieffer, Bill Plante, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley, Connie Chung, Bernard Shaw and others.
Mudd still chortles over the pipe-smoking complacency of NBC News, which relied too much on its anchors, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and adopted the preposterous attitude that its bureau chief summed up as: "Look, we may not be there first but once we get on the story we do a better job on the follow-through and the aftermath than anybody."
Mudd's breakout came in 1964 with insightful hourly reports on a Senate filibuster of civil rights legislation. The episode consummated Mudd's love affair with the Congress, its arcane rules, rococo characters and Southern-gentleman dialect so similar to his own. It also gave him his first taste of fame, which he hated: autograph seekers, publicity interviews, corporate glad-handing. "How naive I was to think I could be seen on television five times a day coast to coast," Mudd marvels, "and continue to insist that I was an unsullied, high-minded journalist and not some show biz performer doing his on-camera shtick."
In his acknowledgments, Mudd says "one of Washington's most successful lawyer-agents" advised him there would be no market for a journalistic memoir "unless I dished about the famous and powerful." While professing abhorrence for this imperative, Mudd, 80, obliges with more than a touch of score-settling relish. Some of the harshest words are reserved for Rather, a onetime friend who schmoozed the CBS brass and wooed the other networks to land Cronkite's job -- while Mudd refused to negotiate, believing himself Cronkite's inexorable successor. Rather is pegged here as "a complicated, guarded, tightly wound, and driven man, whose personality quirks left him lacking the essential quality every successful anchor needs -- personal believability."
Cronkite, in turn, is said to have "resented" Eric Sevareid -- who was plagued by "dark moods" and "considerable vanity" -- for gobbling up two minutes and 15 precious seconds of Cronkite's nightly newscast with barbed commentary often stumblingly delivered. CBS News president Fred Friendly, lionized in the George Clooney movie "Good Night and Good Luck," was "undisciplined" and "volcanic." Ed Bradley was the bureau's "chief malcontent." Bob Schieffer was "in need of constant reassurance. Whenever the Cronkite show would pass on one of his stories, we would hear him bitching and kicking wastebaskets." Harry Reasoner, whose rejection of Barbara Walters as his ABC News co-anchor in 1976 partly inspired the sexist antics in Ferrell's "Anchorman," had worse problems, according to Mudd: "I also watched him whip out of his bottom desk drawer a bottle of booze and take a long pull just before the camera's red lights came on." Even Small had a "sometimes bitchy side."
Nor does Mudd spare himself. He could be "a pain in the neck and elsewhere," he acknowledges. Mostly, he attributes his intractability to a desire to protect his wife and four children from the intrusions of editors, corporate chieftains and other time leeches. On these grounds he refused, in 1965, to cover the Vietnam War -- an assignment that Rather took eagerly, despite his own family pressures. More than a few reporters would say Vietnam, not Capitol Hill, was the place to be in the 1960s.
Still, Mudd's obstinacy derived from more than devotion to family. In her 1983 book, The Evening Stars, Barbara Matusow reported that Mudd was "frankly contemptuous toward the higher-ups at CBS." She described him seated at Cronkite's anchor desk once, minutes before air time, berating CBS News president Richard Salant "in a loud, angry voice" for not giving sufficient notice of Cronkite's absence, concluding, "And don't let anything like this happen again." Mudd agrees that he was "prickly, at times sardonic, slightly self-important, unnecessarily unforgiving of others' mistakes." He pleads guilty to "an aloofness that many interpreted as arrogance. Perhaps it was arrogance, because I believed that the values most journalists embraced were, in fact, superior to those of our corporate owners."
At times, Mudd's memoir suffers from a reporter's overindulgence in detail ("I think the entrée was veal") and commits the sin that would have incurred the old stickler's wrath, misreporting facts: The Watergate burglar was not "John McCord" but James; it was not September 1972 but April 1973 when Mudd's CBS colleagues Shaw and Schorr scooped the competition by cornering former attorney general John Mitchell on a shuttle flight; and it was not in March but in May 1973 that the Senate Watergate committee "opened hearings." Nor will those seeking some admission of the networks' ideological bias find it here, amid Mudd's fond recollections of his visits to the Kennedys at Hickory Hill. The closest Mudd comes is his inclusion of a quote from his former producer, Ed Fouhy, who grants: "We were badly manipulated in those days as I look back on it."
Mudd's anecdotes are rich (including President Nixon whispering, as he watched Diana Ross perform at the 1970 Radio-TV Correspondents' Association dinner: "They really do have a sense of rhythm, don't they?"). But Mudd deserves credit for not writing simply from memory. Instead, he tracked down and interviewed 46 of his old colleagues, including Rather, to give them their say on key events. The result is a classic of Washington journalism, a wry and probing memoir of a career that mattered when the news mattered. To have played for the CBS team was the stuff of swagger. "What is it about CBS?" cried ABC's Charlie Gibson. "You all think you're so great. . . . I look at some of the pieces and I think we're as good or better than you on some of them. But none of us feel as good about ourselves as you feel." ·
James Rosen is a Fox News correspondent and author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate."