Roger Mudd

During the 1960s and 1970s, Roger Mudd was one of several high-profile television correspondents for CBS News — in the days when CBS was always No. 1.

A history major who almost became a history professor, Mudd was articulate, well-prepared and spoke in a perfectly modulated bass voice.

Over the years he covered Capitol Hill, anchored the CBS Saturday Evening News and regularly substituted for Walter Cronkite in the days when Cronkite was known as "the most trusted man in America." Just as Cronkite was dedicated to hard news, Mudd was the epitome of the tough interviewer who put his subjects on the spot and got excellent results.

Some of his most memorable appearances came at the Democratic and Republican conventions held every four years and the presidential election coverage, where his knowledge and wry wit often reigned supreme.

Mudd has just written a marvelous book, "The Place to Be: Washington, CBS and the Glory Days of Television News," partly a personal memoir and partly a tribute to the unique, competitive corps of correspondents who sparred with each other in the CBS Washington Bureau.

It is filled with his own memories and anecdotes, but he combines it with the memories of most of the other correspondents who served with him. Through Mudd's observant descriptions, the reader learns a great deal about what it's like to be in the spotlight every day of the week, the friendships and rivalries that bring journalists together.

"It was hard to work any real history in the one-minute-forty-five second segments I had on the 'Evening News,' but I hope it affected the tone of my pieces and maybe gave it a smattering of political sophistication," said Mudd in a phone interview from his home in McLean, Va.

His master's thesis was written on American contemporary political history, with an emphasis on Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and his relations with the press. Mudd said he decided to write a memoir after his retirement from the History Channel in 2004.

"In 2005, I began to write seriously without a story line. I was trying to put down my memories before I forgot them. After I had a draft written, my friend Jim Lehrer suggested I send it to Public Affairs Publishers and they wrote back saying "it lacked an art." They wanted me to spend more time emphasizing the greatness of the CBS Washington Bureau."

So, Mudd purchased a microcassette recorder and began telephoning his former colleagues.

"They were delighted to be called," Mudd said, "and each person had a different view."

He talked with Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, George Herman, Marvin Kalb, Daniel Schorr, Bruce Morton and the many other people who emerged with big names.

Two of Mudd's best-known interviews were with Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, the first in 1968 and the second in 1980, when both were about to announce their own candidacies for the presidency. "Both Kennedys were very hard to interview," Mudd said. "They talked elliptically, didn't use many verbs and just didn't like to give their ideas until they had thought about them deeply."

Mudd remembered especially the question that flummoxed Robert Kennedy, when Mudd asked him how he got a reputation for being "ruthless." Robert's reply: "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."

The simple question that tripped up Ted was "Why do you want to be president?" Ted hummed and hawed for a long time without ever answering the question. "The irony was that even though he had decided to run, he could not articulate why. My conclusion at the time was to think, 'He really doesn't know why!"'

The RFK interview didn't harm his candidacy, but Ted's inability to answer such a key question slowed his campaign "and it just didn't go anywhere. I don't think it ended his campaign, but people fastened on every mistake he made. The stars were not aligned for him that year."

Mudd and his wife had enjoyed a casual friendship with Robert and Ethel Kennedy prior to the interview, and that didn't end afterward, but all relationships with Ted "ceased after his interview. If the Kennedys thought you were not part of their parade anymore, they cut you off. I tried to tell them I was just supposed to stand on the curb and watch your parade go by — not be a part of it."

Although Cronkite and Mudd created the illusion of closeness with each other on the air, they really saw little of each other. Cronkite was in New York and Mudd was in Washington, D.C., so they just didn't socialize.

Mudd retains only the greatest respect for Cronkite, although their professional relationship was "difficult at times," especially after CBS teamed Mudd with Robert Trout to anchor the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. It knocked Cronkite temporarily off his pedestal, but he was reinstated during the next election in 1968.

Mudd interviewed Cronkite for the History Channel in 2004 and found him "easy to be with. He was delighted to be interviewed, but he had become quite hard of hearing, so our innovative sound man ran a wire up the back of his sleeve and fed my questions directly into his ear."

The major disappointment of Mudd's career was CBS's designation of Dan Rather to succeed Cronkite in 1980. Mudd had been Cronkite's consistent substitute and heir apparent, so when CBS named Rather, he bolted to NBC where he became a dual anchor with Tom Brokaw. Such an arrangement had been originally proposed with Mudd and Rather before Rather's appointment, but Mudd turned it down.

"I didn't want to do that. There was such a difference in our personalities," Mudd said.

He eventually broke up the dual-anchor team with Brokaw, too, because Brokaw in New York and Mudd in Washington and their alleged 50-50 relationship seemed too "artificial." But he has no hard feelings toward Brokaw.

Mudd went on to work for PBS on the McNeil-Lehrer Report, and he has taught the press and politics at Princeton University and his alma mater, Washington and Lee University.

Mudd is even kind toward Rather, although he believes Rather "was never really comfortable in the job." He also thinks CBS has not produced a strong broadcast format for Katie Couric and that "people have gotten out of the habit of watching CBS."

But he bears no grudge at CBS or Rather for his failure to succeed Cronkite. With all the changes in TV news after Cronkite— "the exclusive grip the networks had on news was loosening. I would have had a hard time accepting those changes. I'm a hard newsman like Walter."

Mudd also thinks he would not have been very happy as anchor. "It can be very boring. It's second-hand journalism. You're performing, you get incredible money and recognition, and you can initiate some good stories, but the professional exhilaration of reporting is much better."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com