The 60-and-older crowd can remember that time in modern American history when the civil rights movement was born; President John F. Kennedy, his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated; and the Vietnam War and Watergate tore at the nation’s social and political fabric.
The news of the day, often horrific, sometimes inspirational, was delivered in a measured, thoughtful way by the icons of print journalism and the big three television news networks, long before federal deregulation of the media eliminated the Fairness Doctrine, and the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle produced ill-informed bloggers and overheated proselytes masquerading as news commentators but lacking the substance and knowledge to deliver the news objectively.
If this sounds nostalgic, so be it. Journalism has seen better days, and who better to reminisce about it than Roger Mudd, one of the stalwarts of the CBS and NBC news teams in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He was a trusted, familiar face to an audience who watched the evening news around dinner time without fail, and often without much knowledge of what had happened in the world around them in the past 24 hours.
I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing cocktails and dinner with Mudd on Wednesday night in the Olympia home of his daughter, Maria Mudd Ruth, a friend of mine who is a nonfiction writer, covering topics ranging from marbled murrelets to clouds, and a citizen scientist who shares her father’s wit, curiosity and, daresay, looks.
On Thursday, I spent 75 enjoyable minutes interviewing Mudd about his memories of some of the nation’s most historic events he covered in the ’60s and ’70s while serving as an award-winning Washington, D.C., correspondent and news anchor for CBS. At 85, the years have been fairly kind to this handsome, stately fellow with a full head of hair and familiar voice.
We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the watershed moment in the fight for racial equality, the day when some 250,000 American citizens — 80 percent of them black — filled the space between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr. share his dream, and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sing.
Mudd was in the thick of it, anchoring the live, day-long CBS news coverage from a portable table placed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“It was a major test of my ability to ad-lib,” Mudd recalled. “Nobody really knew what was going to happen. Up until then, the Civil Rights movement was synonymous with demonstrations in the South, police confrontations and violence.”
The rally remained peaceful and Mudd shared the scene with his viewers. But first he had to confront a bout of nerves and an upset stomach filled with cola and antacid. He slipped away and vomited before he went on the air.
As the day unfolded, all the worry and uncertainty faded away. Peace prevailed as oratory filled the air.
“The speakers sent a powerful message: You’re going to have to deal with us,” Mudd summarized.
The following spring, Mudd could be seen day-after-day, morning, noon and night, reporting from the steps of the United States Capitol as Southern Democrats in the Senate staged a record-setting 64-day filibuster in an attempt to derail the Civil Rights Act legislation that grew out of the movement and the march. They failed. The landmark legislation passed and Mudd once again had a ring-side seat to history in the making.
Four years later, Mudd was on the presidential primary campaign trail, covering Robert Kennedy’s quest for the Democratic nomination. There they were on stage June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles — two suburban Virginia neighbors and friends locked in an interview. Kennedy basked in the glow of winning the California primary and Mudd probed him on his strategy for “squeezing” more votes away from frontrunner Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., in the weeks ahead.
“Don’t use the word squeeze,” Kennedy jousted back. Then the senator was whisked away by his handlers, only to be fatally wounded in the hotel kitchen by Palestinian-Jordanian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan. Mudd stood vigil at the hospital as Kennedy clung to life, and reported the senator’s death 26 hours after the shooting. Then the exhausted newsman slipped into an almost catatonic state as he flew back to New York City to work on a one-hour CBS news special called “Some Friends of Robert Kennedy.”
“I remember arriving in Manhattan and looking at people going about their normal daily lives,” Mudd recalled. “How could that be? It didn’t seem right to me.”
Mudd wasn’t through with the Kennedys. In 1979, he worked on a one-hour television documentary — how many of those have you seen lately — profiling Sen. Teddy Kennedy, D-Mass., and his unusual, imminent decision to challenge Democratic President Jimmy Carter in his bid for a second term.
At one point in the interview, Mudd asked Kennedy to describe issues that distinguished him from Carter. Kennedy couldn’t do it.
Mudd’s infamous question followed: “So why do you want to be president?”
Kennedy stammered through a rambling, disjointed answer that clearly showed he hadn’t given it much thought. Many political observers suggest Kennedy’s verbal gaffe derailed his presidential bid before the campaign train ever left the station.
“A lot of people didn’t know this, but Kennedy was not particularly articulate,” Mudd explained. “He never sat down for long interviews and he probably never had thought seriously about why he wanted to be president.”
Fast-forwarding to national politics 2013, I asked Mudd to comment on today’s highly partisan dysfunctional Congress.
He sees a Congress filled with members constantly shuttling back and forth from Washington, D.C., to their home districts, fundraising and running for re-election instead of taking the time to get to know one another in any social setting that might lead to some softening of hardened political positions.
“They don’t hang around Washington, D.C., and they don’t bring their families to live there,” Mudd said.
As the interview wound down, we shook hands and he walked me to the door. It was time for another Olympia area outing with family, this time a swim at nearby Ward Lake.
I drove away from the interview with a new-found conviction.
In the CBS newsroom power struggle to replace news anchor Walter Cronkite, who retired in 1981, Dan Rather prevailed over Mudd. If you ask me, Mudd would have been the better choice.
“The March,” a documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, D.C., will air Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. on PBS.