Roger Mudd's Revenge

Former CBS newsman Roger Mudd has written his memoir, and it's not likely to endear him to his former colleagues. Mudd's book, The Place To Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News (Public Affairs, 387 pages, $27.95), is an engrossing and unflinchingly candid account of what it was like when CBS dominated television news in the late 20th century.

That was, of course, before the networks' influence was undermined by power struggles among network executives and their celebrity anchors; loss of viewers to cable TV and the impact of the Internet and the blogosphere, and the popularity of faux TV pundits like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and unabashed partisans like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and CNN's illegal immigration-obsessed Lou Dobbs.

Mudd is an old Washington hand. A former reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he joined the CBS Washington bureau in 1961, where he covered Congress and national politics and often subbed for Walter Cronkite until 1981. That year, CBS picked Dan Rather over Mudd as Cronkite's successor, a decision Mudd says left him in "a quiet fury." He left CBS to join NBC, where he co-anchored Nightly News and Meet the Press before moving on to the McNeill-Lehrer Newshour on PBS in 1987, and then to academia and The History Channel in the 1990s. He retired in 2004.

Mudd, who turned 80 in February, planned to write about the decline of TV network news until publisher Peter Osnos of PublicAffairs disabused him of the notion. "Everybody knows what happened to the networks. Why don't you write about how great network news used to be? Why don't you write about that great Washington bureau you were part of?"

Mudd followed the advice with a vengeance. "The stories the bureau was witness to and got to cover enabled us to nearly monopolize the output of CBS News for twenty years," he writes. Indeed, they encompassed a huge chunk of contemporary American history: the 1963 March on Washington and the civil rights movement; the ambitious New Frontier and Great Society agendas; the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King; the tragedy of Vietnam and the crimes of the Watergate scandal.

"That twenty-year stretch was unlike any in our history for the changes it wrought, its political upheavals, the growing distrust of government it produced, and the sheer excitement it generated," he writes. And, he might as well have added, the growing distrust and decline of network TV news.

It's a fascinating story, and Mudd tells it straight on. He spares neither his own feelings and faults nor those of his hyper-competitive and ego-driven colleagues. There are plenty of examples, but some of the best revolve around Mudd's rocky relationship with Cronkite, the iconic CBS anchor, as well as colleagues and competitors like Rather.

Case in point: After CBS was badly beaten by NBC in its coverage of the 1964 Republican National Convention -- which Cronkite covered with Mudd, then a floor reporter -- Chairman Bill Paley decided to replace Cronkite with Mudd and a co-anchor, Robert Trout, at the upcoming Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. The move proved to be a disaster, and NBC again won the ratings war."The Cronkite loyalists did not blame [Trout] for the unhorsing of Walter," Mudd writes. "They took it out on me."

Mudd's relationship with Cronkite was never the same, and he remains convinced that it led to CBS tapping Rather instead of him to succeed Cronkite 16 years later.Those bruised feelings may account for Mudd's willingness to take potshots at Rather as well as famous CBS colleagues like Eric Sevareid, Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley, Connie Chung, Lesley Stahl, Dan Schorr and Marvin Kalb, which gives the book a certain "you'll never eat lunch in this town again" quality.

Of particular interest is Mudd's account of his famous 1979 interview with Edward Kennedy, when the Massachusetts senator was unable to explain why he was running for president against an incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter. The interview helped kill Kennedy's presidential chances and made Mudd persona non grata with the Kennedys, with whom he had been friendly. In fact, with the exception of a supportive call from the senator when Mudd was bumped from NBC Nightly News in 1987, he and Kennedy had no contact until a brief encounter at church on Easter 2005.

Mudd's CBS colleague Bob Schieffer has summed up Mudd's book as "the perfect example of what a professional memoir ought to be." I couldn't agree more.