Jonathan Karp, the editor of Senator Edward Kennedy’s posthumously published memoir True Compass, was a guest on C-Span’s Washington Journal the other morning.
He discussed the Senator’s version of the disastrous 1979 CBS interview with Roger Mudd.  The two men sat down on at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis on Cape Cod for an interview as part of  the CBS Reports production Teddy, an hour-long prime time profile of the man who everyone knew wanted to be President.   And Mudd pitched the softest of possible balls by simply asking:  “Why do you want to be President?”

But instead of hitting it out of the park, he had a hummuna hummuna moment that many people feel put paid to his candidacy before it was even announced.

The Karp rendition of the Kennedy version —set down in the chapter “Sail Against the Wind”— was that the Senator was sandbagged.   His understanding was that the interview was to deal with his feelings about his family and the sea. So the question about his presidential ambitions flummoxed him.

According to the memoir, Mudd was a denizen of Hickory Hill, and it was his social friendship with Robert and Ethel Kennedy that led the Massachusetts Senator to entertain favorably Mudd’s request for an exclusive interview as a way of gaining a leg up on Dan Rather in the then heated battle to succeed Walter Conkite as the CBS Evening News’ anchor.

Yesterday on Politico, Roger Mudd states that the True Compass version of those events is “fantasy.”  As Ben Martin reports:

Kennedy, who died August 25, said he agreed to talk to Mudd, a social acquaintance of his and friend of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, because Mudd had pleaded with him that an exclusive interview with reclusive matriarch Rose Kennedy could be a clincher in his battle with Dan Rather over who would succeed Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

The former senator wrote in “True Compass” that Mudd approached him in June of 1979 following a reception for the president of Mexico at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. “As I walked out of the hotel at about 10 p.m., Roger approached me and said – I cannot recall the words verbatim – ‘I’m in this contest with Dan Rather for the anchor position at CBS News, and I’d love to get an interview for your mother.”

Mudd, now 81 and speaking cautiously but firmly to make his side known without, as he put it, getting “in a match with a man who’s no longer with us,” said that not only did such a conversation never take place, but that Kennedy’s entire account of the circumstances surrounding the interview is a fabrication.

“The whole scenario that he lays out is a complete fiction,” Mudd says. “There are no pieces of the truth in it. It’s almost beyond preposterous.”

“There was never any mention, never any proposal or any idea to interview Rose Kennedy,” he said. “The idea that I would’ve thought that an interview with Rose Kennedy would have won me the footrace for Cronkite’s seat just stretches credulity. Her name never came up.”

Rose Kennedy, then 89, made few public appearances, and as her son noted in his book, largely avoided interviews. Kennedy wrote that he was initially resistant to having his mother interviewed – but wrote that Mudd continued the pressure.“It would make a big, big difference if I could ever do that interview down at Cape Cod,” Kennedy recalled Mudd saying.

As Kennedy tells it in his book, his mother became ill and was not available for the interview. But after telling this to Mudd, Kennedy wrote that the newsman insisted on still coming down to Hyannisport to do an interview with him about his connection to the sea and Cape Cod.

“The agreement, as I’d understood it, was that our topic was to be the sea, and the connections between the Cape and the Kennedy family,” Kennedy writes, adding that the first 40 minutes of the conversation were about just that.

But Mudd s ays those topics never even came up.“I have a transcript of the original interview and there’s not a single mention in there of the sea, of the Kennedy relationship to the sea, of his love for sailing,” Mudd says.

To prove his point, the newsman reads back the first question he asked: “What’s your definition of Camelot?”

Many will feel that the idea that CBS would have preempted its prime time lineup for an hour-long program dealing with Edward Kennedy’s feelings about the sea raises at least as many questions as it answers. And why even a presidential candidate not yet ready to announce his candidacy would have such a deer in the headlights reaction to being asked such an obvious question will be endlessly intriguing to students of the Kennedys and the presidency.

And that is where the story might have ended — a simple case of he-said-he-said in which one of the participants only participates posthumously.

Now Politico produces some other points of view and turns this event into a Rashomon effect-like puzzle of conflicting perceptions and interpretations.

For example, Senator Kennedy’s press secretary of the time, Robert Southwick, supports his former boss’ version while leaving just a sliver of wiggle room regarding some fairly crucial details.

Southwick, now an executive at the Starz premium television company, makes clear that three decades later he still feels strongly about what happened. “Mudd sandbagged us and distorted the truth to create a piece that he thought would give him a leg up in the campaign against Dan Rather for Cronkite’s job,” he said.

However, Southwick said he had “no clear recollection of the Rose Kennedy part of the story. “It seems unlikely as I don’t recall Rose giving any interview at all while I worked for Kennedy.”

He said that he recalls first having discussions with CBS in the spring of 1979, but it was about an interview with the senator.

And, Southwick said, Kennedy never mentioned to him that he thought he was doing Mudd a personal favor by agreeing to the interview.

Again, Mudd has different recollections of that September weekend.

“I don’t want to call Tom a liar and I won’t, but that is also a complete fiction,” Mudd says of Southwick’s contention that there was to be no interview that day on the Cape.

Mudd points out that even Kennedy admits in the book that he agreed to some form of an interview.

Where Mudd and Southwick agree – raising questions about Kennedy’s claim that the interview was to be with his mother – is on the fact that CBS spent weeks trailing the senator in Washington and in his home state, including on a family camping trip, to get footage for the eventual package. “If we had been planning to do an interview with Rose Kennedy, why on earth would we have spent all the time and money shooting film of him?” asks Mudd.

Southwick recalls the push-and-pull negotiations with the network in which the senator’s office finally, and grudgingly, allowed CBS to film Kennedy, his children and nieces and nephews camping.

Mudd has no explanation for the sharply differing accounts of the autumn of 1979. “For me – because I came to admire him immensely as a senator – it’s really rather sad that he somehow embraced this fantasy in his final years of his life,” he said.

Whatever the real backstory, the interview turned out to be a double whammy for Roger Mudd.  It failed to catapult him into the Cronkite chair, and ended his halcyon days at Hickory Hill.

The broadcast brought all communications from and invitations to Ethel Kennedy and Hickory Hill to an abrupt halt,” he wrote, after recounting how he threw dinner parties at his suburban Washington home for Robert and Ethel Kennedy and dined out with the couple in 1967 after they watched an RFK documentary together that Mudd had made.