By Donald A. Ritchie / Special To The Washington Post
The veteran TV correspondent Roger Mudd died in March of kidney failure at age 93, just as Senate filibusters have come back in the news. Stories about current efforts to change the filibuster rules frequently refer to an event in which Mudd played a significant but often overlooked part.
In 1964, the Senate underwent the longest filibuster in its history: 75 days of speeches and procedural moves aimed at preventing passage of that year’s monumental civil rights bill. That legislation, proposed by President John F. Kennedy and promoted by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, aimed to ban racial segregation in public places and end employment discrimination. Southern senators had traditionally filibustered to preserve segregation and had defeated every previous attempt to invoke cloture and cut off debate. But this time an impassioned civil rights movement combined with some shrewd legislative leadership enabled the Senate to invoke cloture and pass the bill.
A sidelight to the historic effort was the marathon reporting conducted by Mudd. His story illustrates the power of the media to sway public opinion and prod lawmakers. It reminds us that the media exerts its influence not only through insightful reporting and editorial clarity but also through dogged persistence, hammering facts into the public mind until they can’t be ignored. None of Mudd’s individual reports counted as much as his multiple appearances every day the long debate lasted. His reports, interviews and just routine presence alerted his audiences to the legislation’s high stakes and the tactics being used to frustrate its progress. From the Boston Massacre to Watergate, the power of the media became manifest whenever editors and reporters, convinced of the seriousness of their cause, kept a story alive until they forced people to pay attention.
Born and raised in Washington, Mudd had been a reporter for WTOP, the local CBS affiliate, before the network news recruited him in 1961. Serious in his reporting but droll in delivery, Mudd would broadcast from the Capitol every day the civil rights filibuster lasted, an idea that sprang from Fred Friendly, the new head of CBS News. Friendly saw civil rights as a top story that deserved full attention but was frustrated by the Senate’s prohibition on the filming of its debates. Friendly complained that it would be easier for television to broadcast from the moon than from the Senate chamber; in fact, the televised moon landing took place in 1969, 17 years before the Senate finally allowed television coverage of its daily proceedings. If TV correspondents had to stand outside the Capitol to file reports, Friendly was determined to make the most of it.
He assigned Mudd to do multiple reports each day from the Capitol steps. No other story had gotten such blanket coverage, and Mudd worried that it sounded like a stunt. But he accepted the assignment and let it be known his filibuster coverage would be “straight reporting with all sides heard.” His counterpart at NBC News disparaged the experiment. “I can’t imagine who’d be listening to the stuff,” Mudd overheard him say. “Our listeners aren’t much interested.”
Nonetheless, every day the Senate met, Mudd gave stand-up reports from the Capitol steps at 10 for the morning news, then anchored by Mike Wallace (better remembered for his appearances on CBS News’s “60 Minutes”); for the midday news at 12:24 and 3:24; for Walter Cronkite’s evening news program, and finally the 11 o’clock “good night news” for the network’s affiliates. He also made seven daily radio reports.
Only five reporters were assigned full time to cover the filibuster. Calling themselves the “Cloture Club,” the small group consisted of Ned Kenworthy of the New York Times, Andy Glass of the New York Herald Tribune, Peter Kumpa of the Baltimore Sun, John Averill of the Los Angeles Times and Mudd. Although they often traveled together as a pack when covering news conferences and caucuses, the newspaper reporters were not obliged to file reports when nothing was happening. But Mudd had to appear before the cameras daily. “What … are you going to say today?” they would ask. “I’ll find something,” he assured them.
Mudd dug through the filibuster’s morass in search of something worth citing. By definition, filibusters are stalling tactics that rely on long-winded speeches and tedious procedural delays. In the absence of breaking news, he wandered around getting to know the senators and staff to track the slightest developments. His multiple reports “demanded an hourly hunt for something fresh, some new angle, some overlooked speech,” he later reflected.
On March 20, 1964, snow fell as he interviewed the bill’s manager, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., who had to borrow an overcoat for the outdoor shoot. The next interview, Mudd promised his audience, would be with Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), the leader of the filibuster. Day after day for the next dozen weeks, viewers saw the correspondent standing outside in the snow, rain and blazing sun. Some began calling their local stations to express concern about his health.
Around the second week of his regularly scheduled appearances, Mudd came down the Capitol steps to find a crowd waiting to watch his report. He had become a tourist attraction.
Although he gave equal time to both sides of the debate, CBS had superimposed a clock on his reports to demonstrate how much time the debate was consuming. Southern senators, who had hoped the public would lose interest in the bill the longer the filibuster dragged on, came to realize Mudd’s TV vigil was working against them by highlighting their obstructionism. The Southerners complained that the crowds of curious onlookers who gathered to watch him were blocking their entrance into the Capitol. They persuaded the Capitol Police to move Mudd off the steps and over to the opposite side of the plaza. TV correspondents never regained authorization to do “stand-up pieces” from the Capitol steps.
Humphrey and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield let the process play out gradually, to persuade reluctant senators to support cloture. As senators traveled home and heard from more of their constituents, religious groups and other interests, more began pledging their vote for cloture. The Democratic leadership knew the Republican minority held the deciding votes and courted their leader, Everett Dirksen, Ill., to deliver them, slowly and incrementally.
Finally, on June 10, 1964, with the temperature hitting 100 degrees, the Senate voted 71 to 29 for cloture and shut off the filibuster. Mudd stood outside to announce each vote as it was reported by telephone from the Senate press gallery to the CBS control room to his earpiece. Passage of the Civil Rights Act followed swiftly, outlawing discrimination and profoundly altering America’s social landscape.
Unique in a medium that measured its on-air stories in seconds or minutes, Mudd’s sustained attention to the filibuster probably contributed to the outcome by increasing public pressure on senators. In The New York Herald Tribune, television critic John Horn praised Mudd’s “continued presence at the scene of Washington inaction” for having “personalized and dramatized the halting process of our Government to the average viewer.”
At a Senate commemoration of the 50th anniversary of that historic cloture vote in 2014, Mudd claimed he was “most proud of nobody knowing what I thought.” But even with his efforts at maintaining objectivity, he had exerted an influence on the outcome. In an oral history in 2004, Charles Ferris, staff director of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, as well as one of Mudd’s regular sources, asserted that his coverage had been “essential because it kept the issue before the country and provided context to the general public. It kept the legislation on the public’s mind. It undermined any notion that this was an exercise in futility. This was just something that would remain on course, this was something that would take time, but it was going to conclude, and not collapse. These were serious issues that would to be confronted and resolved.”
Mudd went on to co-anchor the evening news on NBC, deliver political commentary on PBS and become a frequent host on the History Channel. In his 2008 memoir, “The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News,” he devoted a chapter to his coverage of the famous filibuster. Proud of his three months of persistent reporting, and the political education on the Senate that it provided him, he claimed no credit for the story’s outcome. But all those daily reports had demonstrated the media not only provides news but also can make people pay attention to it; and that can change the world.
Donald A. Ritchie is Senate Historian Emeritus and author of “Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps.”