The operator at ABC was very blunt.

"Hughes who?"

Hughes Rudd, she was told.

"Who's he with?" she demanded impatiently.

He's the famous former CBS News anchorman and reporter who has just been lured away from CBS by ABC, she was informed.

"Whaddaryou?" she sneered, "his wife?"

Hughes Rudd takes a long sip of white wine, throws back his head and snorts.

"Ha! Fame! Talks about fame. At the Miss America contest a few weeks ago some guy came up to me and said, 'Mr. Mudd, I just love your columns. I watch you every day on NBC.' Ha!" he howls.

He thinks about this one for a minute. "I said, 'Sir, you have bracketed me.' That's an old artillery phrase.

"People are always asking me if I was Sandy Vanocur. I would say, 'Yes I am. Go f - - - yourself.'"

On this note he orders another carafe of white wine.

This is an interview with Hughes Rudd. It is not an objective interview.

Hughes Rudd was my co-anchor six years ago when CBS News decided to launch its new "Morning News" program, designed to "knock the 'Today' show off the air." It failed.

My role, of course, was to "wipe out Barbara Walters." I failed. During that time we had to get up at 1 a.m. to write the show. In order to be able to sleep at 4 p.m. every afternoon we'd go to lunch and drink.

After less than six months I returned to The Washington Post.

Hughes Rudd stayed on to become one of the cult heroes of America. The ratings for "CBS Morning News" never dropped, they stayed the same. As everyone knows, ratings are everything. But they never skyrocketed, either. CBS blamed Hughes Rudd. Even though everyone sensible knows it was because Captain Kangaroo hogged the second hour.

But never mind. The longer Hughes Rudd was on the air, the larger his cult became. Soon he was getting more mail than Walter Cronkite. What people loved was his iconoclastic sense of humor, particularly in the essays he would end the show with.

Then one day they fired him from the "Morning News." Over another wet lunch in New York recently, he explained what happened.

This not just a story about one man's losing a job. It is a story about old friends who have shared a personal disaster; it is about the perpetual high-powered, high-salaried round of musical chairs that is network television. It is a story about one of the last of the old-time television personalities -- the men who came out of newspapers 20 and 30 years ago to make up the first crop of television personalities -- and how those men became caught up in the fickle race for money and fame, some to make it, others to fall by the wayside.

Hughes Rudd has been in both places and has survived.

It is decided that lunch will be at Cafe des Artistes, a lovely little French restaurant with nude murals right off Central Park West, one block from ABC.

Hughes Rudd doesn't look a bit older than he did when we started the "Morning News" six years ago. His eyebrows knit together just as fiercely when he begin to think sinister thoughts.

Only three things have changed. His wit is sharper, his cynicism more finely honed, and his voice is gruffer, the legacy of three packs a day.

"Well, s - - - ," he says with great finality. "Here we are again."

Hughes Rudd is a good old boy developed to highest refinement, a contradiction in terms he alone has achieved.

Shortly after we arrive and have fallen in like thieves, screaming and laughing about the nightmare opening days at "CBS Morning News," an ABC flack comes running into the restaurant, out of breath, to announce that he has just heard we were having lunch together and that I was doing a piece on Rudd.

His eyes wide with terror, he asks Rudd, "Do you need any help?"

After he has been summarily dismissed and Rudd has stopped laughing, he recalls the days when we were promoting the "Morning News." He told reporters he had once owned a Maltese cat farm in Texas and milked the cats every day on little stools.

Several reporters bit. The CBS flacks were not amused.

He seems rather anxious to talk about his demise at CBS. "Bill Small called me in," he says. [Small, then vice president of CBS News, today is president of NBC News.]

"He said, 'They want you off the "Morning News."' He indicated it was a Black Rock decision. [Blcak Rock is CBS headquarters, so named for 'A Bad Day At . . . ']

"He said, 'You've probably heard rumors.'

"I said, 'No I hadn't.' When you get the anchor job you don't get any water-cooler gossip. People are afraid to talk to you.

"I said to Small, I said, 'Jesus, that seems so unfair.' He got this Buddha-like look on his face and didn't say anything. So I said, 'Well, hell, life if unfair.' And Small said, 'Yes. It is.' Then I thought, well, if the Hermann Goering Division didn't kill me, these bastards won't. I was shocked and hurt.Like that old country song, 'I'm not angry, just hurt.'

"I'd always been a good soldier. What was really humiliating was that they didn't announce it until two months later, then took me off the anchor job but kept me on for two years doing kickers for the broadcast.

"Christ, I remember in the Army if you screwed up they'd give you a carton of cigarettes and transfer you out. But they didn't even transfer me out.

"The fact that they took me off the 'Morning News,'" says Rudd, "must have been Paley. Although I got three versions of why they did it. The first was that I was overpowering Lesley Stahl. The second was that I was too gruff and surly in the morning to suit the audience. And the third reason was that there was no movement upwards in the morning ratings. We doubled the ratings John Hart had on the old morning news, but then the ratings just stayed there."

Rudd himself doesn't think any of these are the real reasons. "I just think that Mr. Paley said, 'I've looked at Rudd now for five or six years. It's time to look at somebody else.'

"If you take this TV business seriously," he says, "they'll crack your heart like a walnut. All you can do is the best you can in a medium that is very restrictive."

He looks up."You know that song, 'You walked across my heart like it was Texas'? That's what they did to me at CBS."

He would have been at CBS 20 years this summer. "It was in the summer of '59 that Cronkite persuaded me to come to CBS."

At CBS, if you've been there for 20 years you get a gold watch. Really.

"I was afraid I'd left just two weeks before I got my gold watch," he says with a laugh. "But then I got a form saying 'Check one: Do you want a gold watch or a mantle clock?' I checked the gold watch."

He is loving this. "The big banquet is in November for new 20-year members at CBS," he says. "I got an engraved invitation. Obviously they didn't know that I had left and gone to ABC. I thought it would be nice to go anyway, but then I decided I couldn't because the president of CBS might be there and it would be too embarrassing. Then I was afraid if I didn't go that I couldn't get my watch. It was a real dilemma." He frowns, a pained look creeping across his furrowed brow.

Then he brightens. "But I looked at the fine print on the invitation and saw that I could get it by mail." He smiles a benign smile of satisfaction.

Hughes Rudd just had his 58th birthday. Not a happy age to find that you are losing your job.

Only seven more years and he'd be eligible to retire with a nice little nest egg to his house in the French countryside.

He had been a newspaper man before he went into television -- The Kansas City Star, the Minneapolis Tribune, editor of the Rock Springs Daily Rocket and Sunday Miner. Walter Cronkite had been his mentor, brought him into the business, told him there could be potential for advancement in this new medium.

Even then, after he'd gone to CBS, he wrote short stories for Esquire at night, putting them together finally into a book, "My Escape from the CIA and Other Stories."

"But for a man who wasn't trained for anything other than flying Piper Cubs over Monte Cassino as an artillery spotter, I've been lucky. I would have preferred to be a newspaper columnist with a smaller mortgage. That's the big problem. The money."

The money. That's what drew them in in the old days, what still draws them in and keeps them in -- big salaries and small satisfaction in a medium too often too easy for agile minds. Hughes Rudd thinks that television reportage is easy. "It's easy to write and easy to get up and blabber it," he says. "Still, I know TV reporters who take two days to write a two-minute script.

"A lot of people on TV are defensive about it and they ought to be. Since Vietnam all the networks have accumulated these semi-literate people. And they're not trying out either. They're actually correspondents."

He begins to shake his head in mock outrage.

"I was sitting in the anchor booth when our Florida correspondent announced to me over the air: 'The governor has made several highly visible appearances.' I'm not kidding," he says.

And he recalls with horror a time about two years ago when he did a piece for CBS on newspapers and he was doing some interviews.

"I was standing there about to start my introduction when I looked up at the TelePrompTer and saw, 'Good evening, I'm Hughes Rudd.' All the newspaper people would come by, look at it, and fall over laughing. They obviously thought, 'Who is this fool who doesn't even remember his own name?'"

Hughes Rudd still hopes that someday he'll be able to write again.

"I wrote most of my short stories when I was at CBS at night." He doesn't write as much as he'd like. "The reason is simple, TV doesn't take up much of your mental capacity," he says, "but it does take up a lot of your physical capacity. There's a lot of being on planes, waiting by phones, in editing rooms.

"When you get home, well, you just say to yourself, 'I'm going to go out and have a big dinner. I owe it to myself.'"

The owner of the restaurant comes over with a plate with one of everykind of dessert they have in the place. It is an immense plate, and the owner goes through the entire selection describing what each thing is. Hughes Rudd watches with intense fascination. When the owner is finished he looks up and quietly asks, "Nothing for hemorrhoids?"

The man looks stunned, then shakes his head negatively. "Then I think I'll just have another cigarette," says Hughes Rudd, smiling politely. The man walks away shaking his head, a puzzled look on his face.

Another carafe of white wine is ordered.

No matter what the conversation is about, Rudd keeps coming back to the subject of CBS and what happened to him.

The first phone call he got after it was over was from Norman Cousins.

"And I got a lot of mail," he says.

CBS News never said Hughes Rudd was fired. "The scenario was that I was supposed to say I was tired and wanted off. I said that for about six months and then I got tired of that. So I said, 'Well, the f - - - ers ditched me.'"

Still the fan mail continued. Hughes knows and is somewhat bemused by the fact that he is a cult figure of sorts to many sophisticated viewers. All he will say of his cult is, "Well, it's too teeny."

One thing. They let him keep his anchor salary. That wasn't particularly what he wanted. He wanted to get out. "I said to them, 'Can't you send me somewhere else? It's kind of embarrassing to stay here after you've been busted.' But they said, 'No, we want you to do kickers.'"

That meant that to do a 60-second kicker at the end of every "Morning News" program he still had to come in at three in the morning, the way he had when he was the anchor. "I thought it was kind of tacky," he says now.

From then on until he finally decided to leave two years later, Hughes Rudd got up every morning to do kickers for the morning news. Finally he decided to quit television and go teach journalism at either Stanford or the University of Texas, both of which had talked to him about jobs.

By then he had been hearing rumors that ABC was interested.

He and his wife Ann went off to France, to the tiny village of Valence d'Albigeois where they have a house, to discuss the possibility of changing networks.

"Ann and I kept saying, 'Can you give up 20 years of retirement funds?' So I kept making demands of my agent and ABC kept saying yes." Finally, when they agreed to everything, including a seven-year contract carrying Rudd to age 65, he agreed to switch. "That," he says, "is unheard of. It wasn't the money as much as the contract.

"If I'm strong on one thing it's not being afraid of the unknown. It's like World War II. I'd rather just get on a goddam plane and do it."

CBS, he says, didn't believe he was leaving.

"They thought that because I had been there 20 years and because I was a child of the Depression, I never would. I was a coward, though. I had my agent call up and say I was leaving. In a way I think they were kind of glad to be rid of me . . . as an embarrassment."

ABC News is different from CBS News. There was a time not too long ago when ABC News was third rung, a no-class outfit. But in the last few years a lot of changes have been made there and before anybody realized it they had added quite a number of talented correspondents to their staff. Mostly it began with the rise of Roone Arledge to be head of ABC News as well as head of the highly successful ABC Sports.

Then they hired Barbara Walters ["I met her for the first time the other day," Rudd says. "I was afraid she would be cool because of our formal rivalry. But she was nice. I had no idea she would be so good lookin' in person] away from NBC for a million dollars a year. That was just the beginning of the raids. They they got Dick Wald from NBC. Then Av Westin, then Sander Vanocur, Cassie Mackin, Sylvia Chase, Lyn Sher, Jim Wooten, Andrew Cockburn, Dave Burke [former Teddy Kennedy man], Warner Wolf and Max Robinson. "And don't forget Geraldo Rivera," says Rudd. He's the Dan Rather of ABC. "Flash and filigree."

And then they got Hughes Rudd. That was a big catch.

Bob Trout [formerly of CBS, who's with ABC out of Spain] called to say that ABC is not a perfect place to work, says Hughes Rudd. "No place is a perfect place to work. But," he said, "at least at ABC we're still allowed to sign our cables, 'regards.'"

[Several years ago at CBS reporters were ordered to stop putting 'regards' at the end of their telegrams because it was costing too much.]

"Roone Arledge," says Hughes Rudd, "wanted to know why I wanted to leave CBS.I told them they were taking me for granted. And I'm a guy who just doesn't understand office politics.

"Dan Rather, Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace, those guys know how. People in TV, to be good at office politics, have to keep their mouths shut. Those people have to swallow nine yards of barbed wire."

So far Hughes Rudd is quite happy at ABC. He did several essays from France that were played prominently on the "ABC World News Tonight" and he plans to have at least two pieces a week or more on the program from now on.

"There must be pitfalls at ABC," he says warily. There must be pitholes with punji sticks in the bottom. But I haven't seen any yet. One thing about ABC is that they are more concerned about writing than they are at CBS.

"On a Monday morning at CBS I would know what I would be doing on Friday. On Monday morning at ABC I don't know what I'm doing Monday afternoon. It's boiling over here. Lively, more open. At CBS everything is very secretive. There's all this undercover decision making. So they'll just sit there smugly at CBS until Walter retires and then they'll go into a big scramble."

According to Hughes Rudd, CBS News is a "well oiled machine." ABC, he says, is not at all. "It's very frenetic, the news division."

It is now nearly 5 p.m. the restaurant has been empty for hours, and Hughes has to catch a plane for Chicago to do a piece on "all the crap that's being manufactured for the pope's visit."

He is getting quite rowdy by this time, railing at the things in life that anger him.

He has to check in at the office, which is right around the corner from the Cafe des Artistes.

In his office, down the corridor from the newsroom, he discovers piles of boxes: All of his things from CBS have been delivered.

He rips open one package to discover Hunter Thompson's campaign poster from the days he was running for Mayor of Aspen, then another, a red campaign poster which says in huge letters, "RUDD FOR CONGRESS."

"Kuralt found this for me when he was on the road. Climbed up a telephone pole to get it."

He discovers that two typewriters have been delivered to his office, neither of which works. And the phone doesn't work yet. He has only been back from France a little over a week. He plops down in his office chair and bays at the ceiling in frustration.

"The f - - - ers will never take me alive," he howls at nobody in particular.

But there is no time for self-indulgence. He has a plane to catch. He has to go back to his apartment, in the Apthorpe on the West Side, to pack.

ABC has the smallest elevators in New York, and at this moment it is the end of the day. We all crowd into a tiny space, at least five people too many crushed against one another as the elevator door shuts.

Suddenly Hughes gets this familiar malicious look on his face and there is no stopping him. You can see it coming.

"You know that skin disease I have that I was telling you about," he says out of the corner of his mouth, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "The one I thought was scabies?"

At this point a foreigner behind Rudd gets a frantic look on his face and begins to mumble in a heavily accented voice. "You are pushing your body against me," he is saying, more terrified by the moment. He obviously does not understand it is a joke. Then, as the elevator door opens at the next floor, the man begins to shout at Rudd, "You pressed your body against mine," and pushes his way in panic to the front of the elevator and out, his voice rising in a feverish pitch as the people on the elevator try to suppress their laughter.

Rudd shakes his head solemnly. "Well," he says finally. "What can you expect from these emerging nations?"

Out in the street Rudd hails a cab to go home. The driver refuses to take him where he wants to go. "I can have you arrested," says Rudd in frustration.

"Go ahead," answers the driver.

"I hate New York," says Rudd. "It's like a Norman Rockwell pornographic painting."

On the way back to his apartment he does a breath test. "Christ," he says in horror, "for God's sake don't tell Ann I've been drinking."

So Hughes Rudd was off to Chicago to do a story on the pope. And in the following weeks, and years, he will be doing television pieces, doing them with style, and flair and good humor. He will be spending his summers in France, in the tiny little village where he and Ann plan to retire and where they shoot pictures of butterflies as a hobby, pictures that are better, he says, than those taken by National Geographic. He will be content because he feels secure about his job, because he has a seven-year contract and because he will have enough money to live well on after he retires.

But he will still be a little sad. Because after 20 years in the television business, he still thinks of himself as a newspaper man. "If I didn't," he says, 'I'd kill myself."

And in the end, even though he now knows at age 58 that it isn't in the cards, even though he has emerged, once again as a success on television, he still dreams of writing once more for a newspaper.

"My idea of paradise," he says, "would be to do what Art Buchwald was doing in Paris on the Herald Tribune years ago."

And then, with that conspiratorial leer, "You don't think there'd be an opening for that sort of thing, do you?"