“Well this is, as you can tell, my first book tour. It’s the first book I’ve ever written, and I can’t tell you how much I love it! I walk around the house hugging it. I love the heft of it and the permanence of it and I even love the fragrance – a fresh book has a fragrance to it. I try to sneak looks at it but my wife catches me every time. She says, “Put the book down!'” -Roger Mudd
I can’t imagine having a conversation with a national news anchor. Wolf Blitzer is too scary, Brian Williams is too polished, and so many of the rest seem to let the teleprompter do all the work. I can imagine meeting Anderson Cooper at a cocktail party and getting really flustered. But their unapproachability gives them this false air of authority, boosted by slick graphics and intense theme music. People wax nostalgic for the old network newscasts and those steady, honest anchors. They probably weren’t particularly accessible, but at least they seemed smart, trustworthy, and genuinely charming. I get frustrated when older journalists rail against our generation and the bleak future of reporting, but when I went to see one of those old anchors a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think that we’re all missing out on something these days.
Roger Mudd was before my time. It’s quite possible that he was before your time too, unless I’m wrong to assume that the majority of my readers are facebook friends. He joined the CBS News ‘front line’ in 1961, spending most of his time on Capitol Hill and filling in as anchor while Walter Cronkite hung out on his yacht. He left CBS in 1981 when he was passed over for the anchor job that went to Dan Rather. The whole affair was handled poorly. Rather was threatening to go to ABC, but some say his “flashy” appeal was a major selling point. Others say that Mudd was aloof and Rather was a ‘man of the people’ kind of guy, both on television and in person (and I guess that charm evolved into crazy). This article had the best characterizations – Rather is a “rock-’em-sock-’em robot” and Mudd is “every woman’s first husband, or, if they have a safety fetish, their last.”
Maybe I have a safety fetish. I’m kind of in love with Roger Mudd. He was just so… professional, more genteel than aloof. He was at the Commonwealth Club to promote his new (first) book, The Place to Be. I was completely charmed. He pronounces ‘whats’ and ‘wheres’ with that prominent H and he kept starting sentences with the phrase, “Back then…” He also took a long, hard look at the media, lingering on rumors that CBS would be “outsourcing” its news gathering to CNN and worrying over the rise of punditry and the dominance of the ten-second news cycle. When he spoke, he was sweet and gentle and he had absolutely perfect phrasing, completely natural cadences and tone. When he talked about leaving CBS, his voice dropped to a whisper. He’s either the world’s best actor or he’s still genuinely upset after 25 years. I’d put money on the latter.
Three or four days later my son called me. He said, “Dad, I just heard on the radio that they’ve picked Rather.” Nobody told me. So I got a call that Bill Leonard was going to fly down to Washington. He came down and said, “Well, we’re going with Rather.” When I came out of the office I had to walk through the newsroom, and everybody knew what had happened. They all looked down, they didn’t want to look at me. Do you know that scene from “High Noon?” And I felt like I was taking off my CBS badge like it was a sheriff’s badge and throwing it in the dust. It was hard. Not that they didn’t have the right to pick Dan, but the way they handled it…
So I left the bureau and I didn’t come back for 26 years, until I started to write the book. I gathered up my stuff and I drove down to Georgetown, to a little bookstore owned by Larry McMurtry. Books are central to my life and I collect Southern first edition twentieth century fiction. I have a good collection. I went into the bookstore and for the next two hours, I shut out Dan Rather and Bill Leonard and just walked up and down, looking, looking, looking. And I finally found a book that I didn’t own. It was by Robert Penn Warren, World Enough and Time. I bought it for $25. And then I went home and I told my wife and she was madder than I was. I was the one who was gone on the weekends and the summers while she was raising four marvelous children. And we sat there and felt sorry for each other. We had a reservation for dinner and she said, “Let’s go to dinner.” And it was Valentine’s Day.
He also talked about his (in)famous 1980 interview with Ted Kennedy, where the simple, “Why do you want to be president?” prompted several minutes of confused floundering. I was surprised to learn that a “Roger Mudd moment” seems to be a popular term in political reporting – usually signifying that a candidate hasn’t quite thought things through. At the Club, Mudd said it’s a question you never want to ask because it just seems too easy. But it would be the first thing on the table in a job interview and honestly, in the past six months, you’ve had to wonder what exactly some of these people thought they were doing. Maybe they should have had to write a convincing personal statement to get a spot at the first debate.
He spent a good portion of the question and answer section politely trashing today’s television media, so when he was asked about prospects for young journalists, I couldn’t quite buy it: “If you can write, and you can combine good writing with good pictures, you will have a future no matter where you are and what the condition of broadcast journalism is.” Encouraging, yes, but hard to reconcile when you’ve just spent ten minutes decrying the pandering, the talking heads, and the painfully short sound bytes. I guess he did such a good job convincing me that ‘the glory days’ were great that it’s difficult to imagine how any of this is going to work in the future. When he talked about the old CBS News bureau he talked about divine intervention and forces aligning, almost like it was just luck that brought everything together. I guess if it’s just a combination of good writing and divine intervention, there may be some hope for us after all.
Listen to a full recording of Roger Mudd’s speech here.