Umm, Not Helpful

Caroline Kennedy was not the first member of her family to be dismissed for saying “Ummmm” to a member of the press.

In 1979, CBS correspondent Roger Mudd sat down with Ted Kennedy on Cape Cod for a major interview, which the Boston Globe recently excerpted as part of its major series on the life and accomplishments of their state’s very senior senator.

The interview is famous because Mudd asked the unannounced but well-signaled presidential candidate a simple question: “Why do you want to be president,” remembers Mudd in the interview. “That was it. That was all I said.”

Perhaps it’s better to say that the interview is famous because of Kennedy’s not-so-simple answer, which was widely panned as meandering, pointless, weak, and clearly unprepared. It began with “Well I’m… ummm…” (You can read the rest, and get more of Mudd’s thoughts on his career and the interview in this 2008 C-SPAN transcript.)

“I don’t want to be known—and don’t think I should be known—as the man who brought Ted Kennedy down,” says Mudd in the Globe’s video. “I was a man who did an interview with him that was not helpful.”

Mudd put it similarly in a piece he wrote for CJR last year remembering how Kennedy’s campaign came to an end on a New York stage, where he snubbed Jimmy Carter, the incumbent President and his party’s nominee, in front of the convention:

It had been a bitter campaign. Kennedy never got his off the ground. My interview with him - the “Why do you want to be president?” interview - on November 4, 1979 was not helpful.

It looks like Mudd knows something about the value of a prepared, thoughtful, answer.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.