The Tears of August
C-SPAN has just broadcast the first half of a two hour interview with former CBS newsman Roger Mudd. The occasion is the publication of his memoir The Place To Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News.
C-SPAN grand poobah Brian Lamb does his usual artfully artless job as interviewer. Despite Mr. Mudd’s avuncular manner even then, he was, apparently, something of a cranky colleague and far from being anybody’s idea of a team player. Most of the first hour was devoted to explaining his tiffs and rifts with Dan Rather (who aced him out for the anchor gig) and Walter Cronkite (who was not amused by anything or anyone undermining his already legendary status). Names like Paley and Salant and Small fly by, recalling the days when CBS was truly considered to be the gold standard (before it was demoted to being merely the Tiffany Network).
Near the hour’s end, Mr. Lamb outlined some of the subjects to be covered next week (including the famous “why do you want to be President” question that sunk Ted Kennedy’s 1980 candidacy before he even rose from the rocking chair on his Hyannisport porch). And there was, he said, one piece of news in Mr. Mudd’s book that he wanted to ask about even though they had not reached it chronologically.
So Mr. Mudd and Mr. Lamb proceeded to tell the story of Lillian Brown. Ms. Brown, who worked for CBS for thirty years, was the makeup person of choice for six presidents —from JFK through WJC. Late on 8 August 1974, she received a call from the White House saying that she was needed to make up President Nixon for a TV broadcast that night.
When she arrived at the White House, according to Mr. Mudd’s reporting of Ms. Brown’s story, a Secret Service agent told her that RN was currently meeting with members of congress, and after that he would join her in the small room off the Oval Office where makeup and hair were done before TV appearances. The USSS agent warned her that the President was not “in good shape” so that she would be prepared for what she found.
A few minutes later, RN entered. As he sat in her chair he collapsed weeping —“blubbering” in Mr. Mudd’s word— uncontrollably. Ms. Brown, aware that the live TV speech was scheduled to begin in just a few minutes, started to panic. Then she remembered an event at a 1973 White House Christmas gathering when King Timahoe, RN’s irish setter, had crashed the party and needed to be removed to a nearby bathroom. Ms. Brown said, “I’ll do it,” but RN had the same idea. The upshot was that they both found themselves in the bathroom, each holding a side of King’s collar. Presumably they also both heard the door click —and lock— behind them. And they had to wait to be rescued from the sulking canine by the amused partygoers.
Ms. Brown related this story to the disconsolate RN —- and before long they were both laughing at the absurdity of their situation. She was able to finish her job and he was able to go on the air on the dot at 9 pm. Mr. Lamb asked why Ms. Brown had waited so many years before revealing this story; Mr. Mudd referred to her strong sense of discretion.
I know —- some anecdotes raise as many questions as they answer. For starters, exactly why, where, and how do bathroom doors lock from the outside? But I’m buying this story — or at least its essentials.
In RN, RN himself referred to the extremely emotional nature of that humid, crowded Cabinet Room meeting with about fifty of his congressional supporters. Observing that he couldn’t stand to see other people cry, he said that it was the sight of his old friend Les Arends weeping that made him push back his chair and leave the room in tears. And Al Haig expressed doubts about whether the President would be able sufficiently to recover and compose himself to be able to deliver his resignation speech.
Mr. Lamb then went on to show the oh so familiar tape of the few minutes before the speech began — the “pickin’ my nose” moment — when RN attempted to break the almost unbearable tension by bantering with the hapless TV crew, and has suffered for it ever since.
The degree to which RN let his hair down in front of Ms. Brown is probably debatable. He had already been crying in the Cabinet Room. In such emotional and historical circumstances, I’m sure that even a few tears might have seemed a veritable Niagara. And if in fact he blubbered, surely that was nothing less than the circumstances called for, and I’m glad he found someone as familiar and comforting as Ms. Brown in front of whom he felt free to do it. And I’m grateful to her for having had the presence of mind to remember King Timahoe; and the decency not to have leaked the story before the speech was even concluded.