THE PLACE TO BE: WASHINGTON, CBS, AND THE GLORY DAYS OF TELEVISION NEWS
By Roger Mudd
PublicAffairs, 413 pages, $27.95
Why are journalists’ memoirs dull?
Could it be they’re so studiously trained to keep their own personalities out of their writing that when the time for self-expression comes, they have nothing of their own to offer?
There are exceptions, of course—nobody ever called Leibling dull or Mencken boring, and Russell Baker is always charming and elegant. But the norm is Robert Novak, the Prince of Darkness himself, who obviously reread his old columns to develop a timeline for the memoir he published last year. Tylenol PM should be so effective.
Broadcast journalists labor under a particular handicap, because they’re trained to write for the ear rather than the eye, which allows for much less complexity. Tom Brokaw’s books seem to be written by a bright eighth grader—short sentences and an unvarying, lulling rhythm that would stun Babe the Blue Ox. Poor Dan Rather needed a ghost writer to write his memoirs.
Here, too, there are exceptions. It’s nice to be able to report good things about Roger Mudd’s new book, even though it labors under several misapprehensions.
THE PLACE TO Be—for Mr. Mudd, it was the Washington Bureau of CBS News. He gives short shrift to his childhood, and his wife and children are virtual walk-ons, after which they are unceremoniously ushered offstage in favor of … Everett Dirksen? Throughout this memoir, emotional intimacy is avoided; instead we get the and-then-I-met-and-reported-on organizing principle. This keeps the book afloat, as long as the people are interesting.
For Mr. Mudd, the reporting world basically came down to the following:
Good: Everett Dirksen, Bobby Kennedy.
Bad: A long series of Southern senators defined largely by varying degrees of virulent racism and, of course, Richard Nixon—the gift that keeps on giving. Once, Mr. Mudd sat next to Nixon at a correspondent’s ball. The entertainment was Diana Ross, and in mid-performance Nixon leaned over and said, “They really do have a sense of rhythm, don’t they?”
Mr. Mudd writes well (“The Goldwater campaign was to politics what free verse was to poetry—nothing according to form”) and avoids most obvious score-settling, although he’s still very sensitive about being passed over for Walter Cronkite’s job in favor of Dan Rather.
It made perfect sense to me: Roger Mudd is respectable and dutiful—every woman’s first husband, or, if they have a safety fetish, their last. For more than 20 years, people watched Dan Rather play the part of a broadcasting rock-’em-sock-’em robot, curious to see if this was the night his head would separate from his body. Mr. Rather communicated his inner anxiety to the viewer and gave everything an outsize dramatic tension—it was never about the story, it was about him. Dan Rather had an edgy kind of star quality; Roger Mudd was pure Ralph Bellamy.
In THE PLACE TO Be, he offers numerous thumbnail sketches of his colleagues in the bureau, a mixture of Edward R. Murrow’s boys and the new kids on the block—Howard K. Smith, Dan Schorr, Eric Sevareid, David Schoenbrun, Dan Rather, Marvin Kalb, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley and so forth. Graciously, he also pays tribute to the behind-the-scenes players whose names and faces were unknown to the public.
Some of the stories he covered remain genuinely interesting and make the pages fly by—the Civil Rights filibuster, followed by the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Other tidbits fall flat: Nobody cares about Billie Sol Estes except Robert Caro.
Save for one or two cautious asides about Harry Reasoner’s drinking, Mr. Mudd doesn’t dish the dirt, unless calling someone an egomaniac is dishing dirt, in which case all of post-World War II media would be a vast landfill. This is a book about professionals who had no time for sex, drugs or rock ’n’ roll.
Here’s the caveat you’ve been waiting for: Roger Mudd takes the greatness of the post-Murrow CBS news as a given. I wonder if a couple of weeks spent before monitors at the Museum of Broadcast Communications might not induce a welcome sense of modesty.
Certainly, the Washington bureau had some fine reporters, but they sound insufferably impressed with themselves—the pride that precedes the fall. Mr. Mudd is irritatingly patronizing about the competition from NBC and ABC, and he reports that when CBS hired Ike Pappas away from Metromedia, Mr. Pappas was considered so déclassé hardly anybody shook his hand. “We all felt we were so untouchably pure,” writes Mr. Mudd, “all so conscious of being Murrow’s heirs apparent.”
Your interest in this relentless parade of old war stories will largely be determined by your passion for the backstory of journalism’s “first rough draft of history.” There’s no getting away from Mr. Mudd’s true subtext, best put by Shakespeare’s Justice Shallow: “Jesus, the days that we have seen.”
Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.