Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Flashback, Mid-October 1979: CBS Newscaster Becomes Mudd in Kennedy’s Eye

By this time 30 years ago this month, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy had already decided to challenge incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries. But he was not yet ready to make the announcement.
So, when CBS reporter Roger Mudd—a two-decade friend of the Kennedy family—asked pointed questions about the prospective candidacy, the Camelot heir-apparent’s halting responses tripped himself up before he left the starting gate.

That much is agreed upon. But the now-retired newscaster and the recently deceased politician differ dramatically over most other aspects of an hour-long interview that that still raises stark questions about candidates’ control of their images and the methods that the electronic media use to elicit answers from risk-averse politicos.

In The Kennedy Imprisonment, historian Garry Wills, pondering the wreckage of Ted Kennedy’s 1980 Presidential bid, asked: “Why is he, how can he be, so bad?'' That shocked assessment began with the Mudd interview, which was recorded on October 12, 1979, then aired November 4—three days before he was set to announce his candidacy.

Let’s look first at Kennedy’s side of the dispute with Mudd. By his account in the posthumous memoir True Compass, the senator was approached by Mudd in June 1979 after a reception for the President of Mexico at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. The reporter told him that a prize “get,” or a must-have interview, with Rose Kennedy would help him greatly in his struggle against Dan Rather to succeed Walter Cronkite as anchorman at CBS.

When the sit-down with Mrs. Kennedy didn’t come off, according to Kennedy, Mudd pleaded for one with the senator, saying it would be confined to his relationship with Cape Cod. Instead, several questions turned out to be about the accident at Chappaquiddick. The Senator, according to a Boston Globe special report earlier this year, had never done an interview on the topic.

The feeling of his aides—that the matter could be overcome—suffered a serious setback when Kennedy’s irritation, despite his best efforts, seeped through on camera. He might have said, “I will answer the questions, and if you have questions right now, ask them of me.” But his frosty gaze at his interviewer conveyed something entirely different.

Kennedy and Mudd both agree that the Senator came off badly in the Cape Cod interview, particularly when asked about Chappaquiddick. Kennedy’s aides then asked for another interview—an interesting request, given that they had already agreed to one. The CBS team assented—it was merely adhering to the original bargain.

Why did Kennedy look so uncomfortable on camera? Here are some possible explanations:

* He’d never sat down for a prolonged, one-on-one interview like this. Over the last decade, Kennedy had only appeared on Sunday morning newsmaker shows like “Face the Nation” or in televised hearings (and even in this case, not as often as one might think, given that the Senate didn’t allow permanent televised coverage of its proceedings until 1986). He wasn’t prepared for someone who would test and probe sore spots as Mudd would do.

* He didn’t expect questions about Chappaquiddick or his personal life. Kennedy wasn’t the only Presidential candidate to feel he’d been sandbagged by the “Tiffany Network.” In 1988, George H.W. Bush, asked by Rather about his role in the Iran-contra affair, shot back that he shouldn’t be judged by “a rehash on Iran”: “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?” Bush’s tart response reassured GOP rank-and-file that what George F. Will had once called “the wimp factor” would not play a role in how he dealt with the media, at least. That was not the case with Kennedy, who should have known better than to expect he would not receive any questions on Chappaquiddick. At the same time, Mudd, in his own retrospective comments on the interview, remembers it in a particularly colored prism when, in a discussion with C-Span’s Brian Lamb, he rebuts the Kennedy camp’s accusation that his questions were personal. That explanation does not hold water when one considers the following three consecutive questions: “What’s the present state of your marriage?, “Are you separated? Are you just—what—how do you describe the situation?” and “Is there a prospect that she [Joan Kennedy] will soon resume her life with you in Washington?”

* He had not figured out a rationale for running. That became the most common explanation for why he offered the following rambling response to Mudd’s blunt question, “Why do you want to be President?”:

“Well, I’m – were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country that it is – has more natural resources than any nation of the world, has the greatest educated population in the world, the greatest technology of any country in the world, the greatest capacity for innovation in the world and the greatest political system in the world. And yet I see at the current time that most of the industrial nations of the world are exceeding us in terms of productivity or doing better than us in terms of meeting the problems of inflation, that they’re dealing with their problems of energy and their problems of unemployment. It just seems to me that this nation can cope and deal with its problems in a way that it has in the past. We’re facing complex issues and problems in this nation at this time, but we have faced similar challenges at other times and the energies and the resourcefulness of this nation, I think, should be focused on these problems in a way that brings a sense of restoration in this country by its people to – in dealing with the problems that we face, primarily the issues on the economy, the problems of inflation and the problems of energy and I would basically feel that it’s imperative for this country either move forward, but it can’t stand still or otherwise it moves backward.”

Just think of what Jon Stewart would have made of this reaction today! This question is the media equivalent of a common enough question when one interviews for a job: “So, tell me about yourself.” It’s the softball question that, amazingly, never turns out to be that way.

* Kennedy was inarticulate without a prepared text. This explanation, I think, might be as valid as any other reason. Ted was simply not good off-the-cuff (neither was brother Bobby when he debated Ronald Reagan, nor—as if anyone could forget—was niece Caroline in speaking to reporters when she expressed interest in becoming appointed senator from New York). Amazingly, here was something else he had in common with George H.W. Bush: “He couldn’t articulate an English sentence,” said Edward Fouhy, a Washington bureau chief for CBS in the early 1980s. “He was hopeless on the stump and wasn’t great with a prepared text either.”

* The format of the interview—a confined set of questions, with the replies allowed to run in full—only showed how agonized he was on these matters. The Kennedy camp might have felt that, by agreeing to this format, instead of, say, more than 100 questions, with 10-second answers—would militate against out-of-context editing by the network. Instead, by allowing Kennedy’s responses to proceed in full, the format only underscored Kennedy’s extreme lack of comfort.

Both Kennedy and Mudd reviewed their interview with distress after the passage of three decades. Kennedy believed the newsman had blindsided him, while Mudd, reluctant to get involved in a debate with a man now acclaimed “the lion of the Senate,” simply says that Kennedy’s recollections on the interview are “a fabrication.”

Neither man came out ahead because of the interview. Kennedy’s answers were singularly unhelpful to his candidacy. As for Mudd, he not only lost his bid to replace Cronkite, but became blamed by Kennedy forces for upending their hero. “I don’t want to be known—I don’t think I should be known—as the man who brought Teddy Kennedy down,” he said a year or two ago.

Fair enough. Kennedy fumbled responses to questions he should have expected, at one point or another, in the campaign. Moreover, matters outside Kennedy’s control—the seizure of the hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—led Americans to rally around Carter in a way they hadn’t done so before. Kennedy's election turned out to be not so inevitable as many thought at first.

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