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A Texas newsman’s journey to Ted Kennedy’s office
By Dennis Holder |

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY is at the podium, and it’s a flashback to an earlier, more innocent time. For long moments, it’s as if Johnson, Nixon, Carter and the others are still to come-as if November 22, 1963, had never happened. The mythic Kennedy magic is here. This surviving brother has it. The strong, buttery voice, the broad Boston vowels, the determined jaw, the clear twinkle in the eyes-they’re all here. And the passion. It crackles from him and electrifies the room.

The crowd is his. A thousand people are jammed into an Austin banquet room so tightly that they eat their salads without lifting their elbows; all have been rapt since his first words. Some are Republicans. Some disagree with most of what he says. But each paid $15 or more to see a Kennedy, to watch the magic. Here it is.

“Ronald Reagan has spent a lot of time in this campaign quoting Democrats,” Kennedy says, his voice dropping like an actor’s to suggest sorrow, or perhaps pity. “Does he quote Herbert Hoover? Does he quote Richard Nixon? No, he quotes FDR and Harry Truman and JFK. I want to tell you (and now the voice rises, stronger, firmer], Ronald Wilson Reagan has no right to invoke the name [booming now, hammering each syllable] of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”

The name hangs over the room like cannon smoke. For five heartbeats, silence. Then the crowd explodes. Applause. Cheers. Here and there a tear. They came to see the magic, and here it is.

Behind the podium, Bob Mann, Kennedy’s press secretary for barely a month at the time, is as caught up as the rest. Mann has heard these words delivered in the same tones many times. But the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy thrills him now just as it did when he was a high school kid in Cameron, Texas, in the early Sixties. He still sees shades of the murdered president when he gazes at this brother and listens to this voice.

“Of course, Ted Kennedy bears an unmistakable physical resemblance to JFK,” says Mann. “If you close your eyes and just listen to him speak, the similarity of the voices is uncanny. But the important thing about Ted Kennedy is what he has to say. John Kennedy was one of my first real heroes, and the same idealism that attracted me to him 25 years ago is alive and healthy in his surviving brother. Ted Kennedy is absolutely uncompromising in his principles. That’s where the real resemblance to his brother lies.”

Spoken like a true press secretary. The thing about Bob Mann, though, is that he seems to believe the hype. Crazy idealism, you might say. Isn’t this the Eighties, the age of the blow-dried TV candidate, the heyday of Pop-Tart political packaging, the era of homogenized, sanitized positions on what are laughingly called “the issues”?

“Bob has never grown jaded or cynical like most of the rest of us have,” says SMU journalism professor David McHam, a friend since Mann headed the SMU communications program during the mid-Seventies. “He still believes that what is right is right. Bob is still a little boy in the best possible way.” A 40-year-old little boy, 5-foot-3 inches tall. Balding, paunchy and inclined to grow red in the face.

Around Dallas, a lot of people bring up that boyish idealism when they talk about Bob Mann. They remember him as night city editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, as assistant city editor at the Dallas Times Herald, as head of the SMU journalism program or as press secretary for Texas politician Bob Krueger during two unsuccessful runs at the U.S. Senate. They admiringly explain that he single-handedly raised a daughter while bouncing from one career to another in half a dozen cities. They tell stories of eccentricities and crazy antics that make him sound like somebody Larry L. King might have invented. And, invariably, they add that, along with Molly Ivins, Bob Mann is the last real Texas liberal.

“It is entirely appropriate that Bob Mann is working for Teddy Kennedy,” says an old drinking buddy from Mann’s Times Herald days. “He loves to tilt at windmills. He loves to see himself as a champion of the downtrodden. He is especially concerned with minorities.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s so short,” offers Dallas journalist Al Harting, an SMU colleague. “Bob’s real sensitive about his height. It’s the one thing you don’t want to kid him about. I think it’s the reason he is always for the underdog. Hell, when you’re only 5-foot-3, you don’t like to see anybody pushing people around.” Whatever the reasons for his particular turn of mind, though, ol’ Bobby Lee Mann is surely one of the stranger creatures ever to climb up out of the bottom toe of Texas.

It started in high school. While his classmates were raising hogs and dreaming of the State Fair or bashing each other’s brains out between goal posts, Mann spent his Saturdays in the back room of the Cameron Herald with editor Frank Luecke. They’d talk about politics and civil rights and the man from Massachusetts who was about to become the 35th president of the United States.

From the time he was 14, Mann worked for the paper, writing sports, setting type and sweeping out the back office between bull sessions. At 16, he won a Texas Press Association award for a couple of feature stories. One was about families left homeless by Hurricane Carla. The other was an emotional account of the wreck that killed country singer Johnny Horton.

When he graduated from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville in 1966, Mann went to the Star-Telegram as a copy editor, moved up to reporter and, at 24, was named night city editor, the youngest ever at the paper. One slow evening, the Fort Worth school board toured the newsroom. Upon being introduced to Mann, the board president drawled, “You don’t look old enough to be a city editor.”

“You don’t look smart enough to be a school board president,” Mann shot back. It’s the thing most people remember from his time in Fort Worth.

From the Star-Telegram, Mann moved to Colorado to work as managing editor of the Longmont Daily Times-Call while earning a master’s degree in journalism and political science from the University of Colorado. His marriage to Ann Bowman, whom he had wed during college, fell apart. He returned to Texas in 1971 to organize minority and poverty coverage as assistant city editor of the Times Herald.

Two years later, Mann began teaching at SMU. He was known as a good teacher, one who was fond of adjourning classes to the old Vagabond Club, now the Greenville Avenue Country Club, for beer and bull shooting. Hanging out in a bar frequented by judges, lawyers and newspaper people, he contended, helped his students learn the street smarts they would need in journalism.

Because of this kind of informality in the generally proper SMU environment, some of Mann’s colleagues considered him a bit of a wild man. But his closest friends, like Mc-Ham, saw another side. They remember that Mann quietly slipped away from campus each afternoon to meet Liz, the 7-year-old daughter who chose to live with him rather than with her mother. And they say he never failed to return home in the evening in time to prepare dinner and help Liz with her studies.

“I doubt that very many people at SMU even knew Bob was raising a daughter,” says McHam. “He did it very privately. But his daughter has always come first in his life.”

Adds Mann, “I think my life was much simpler because my daughter was with me. She provided me an anchor. She is one reason I never remarried. I’ve had her companionship, and it has been very nurturing.”

During his tenure at SMU (he was communications chairman from 1974 through 1977), Mann became Dallas’ first serious media critic. In a weekly news analysis on KERA radio, he chided the local press when it wasn’t as good as it should have been. He also co-founded the Dallas Journalism Review in an effort to create a forum in which local journalists could discuss the weightier questions of their profession. The Review lasted only a few issues.

Although Mann challenged the Dallas press on many points-including the lack of balance in political coverage and the tacit acceptance of secret government meetings-he hammered at two problems again and again. One was the notorious willingness of the two Dallas dailies to compromise hard line coverage in exchange for gifts and favors; the other was the dismal failure of the local media to do what he called “an acceptable job” of covering minorities.

As president of the Dallas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Mann helped fashion a code of ethics that largely ended the local reporters’ practice of taking freebies in exchange for a few lines of ink.

On the question of minority coverage, Mann pleaded with Dallas dailies to hire blacks and Hispanics as a way of heightening the papers’ internal sensitivity. Without diversity, he insisted, a newspaper could hardly expect to understand, much less develop rapport with, various segments of the community.

In a speech given during his tenure at SMU, he made the point with an incident from his own experience. It occurred in 1968, when Mann covered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Four days after the murder, he was the only white man at an all-night wake: “Late in the evening, while sitting in a short-sleeved shirt next to a young black woman, I felt a finger touch my forearm and wrist. I turned to her and she said, ’I’m sorry. I just had to do that. I’ve never been this close to a white man before, and black men do not have hair on their arms like that. I had to know what it felt like.’ I said nothing, but I realized that I’d never been that close to a black woman before, either.”

The speech moved several Highland Park money men to urge Mann to run for Congress against Jim Collins. “My response was that I was divorced, talked loud in bars and pursued women with vigor, and that the good people of Park Cities preferred the more stoic lifestyles of the Jim Collinses of the world,” he says.

But none of Mann’s candor improved hiring practices or coverage at the Times Herald or the Morning News. “Isn’t it amazing,” he says today, “that all these years later, the newspapers in Dallas still have hardly any minorities on their staffs and still don’t bother to cover the huge ethnic populations in the area. The broadcast media, especially television, have made some progress. But the newspapers still act as if they think the city consists entirely of white Protestants who live in the Park Cities or North Dallas.”

JOURNALISTS ARE famous for their thin skins. They lustily dish out criticism and dig up dirt, but put them on the receiving end, prick their tender backsides with the tiniest needle, and they’re likely to scream bloody murder. Mann discovered that, with a few exceptions-Times Herald publisher Tom Johnson foremost among them-Dallas journalists didn’t welcome Mann’s media watchdogging.

“Had I chosen to remain in Dallas,” Mann says now, “I think I would have been better off to not have been such a shouter. I got the cold shoulder from the media there, and I imagine there still are a number of people in town who resent me because I had the audacity to criticize their journalistic fraternity. Someone needed to do it, though. The media have to be subjected to public scrutiny just like other institutions. It’s essential to their credibility.”

But Mann did not choose to stay here. He took leave from SMU to work on a doctorate degree at the University of Maryland and wound up working in U.S. Rep. Bob Krueg-er’s 1978 campaign against Sen. John Tower. His title was press secretary, but his real role was to humanize Krueger, who is naturally stiff, wooden and humorless.

Times Herald associate editor Roy Bode recalls dining with Mann and Krueger at a fashionable Washington restaurant. As the maitre d’ led the three to a table, Mann grabbed a handful of chocolate cake from the dessert cart and began stuffing it in his mouth.

“I can’t believe you did that, sir,” the maitre d’ said.

“Just show us to our table and put it on the bill,” Mann replied.

“That’s a true story,” Mann says. “You have to have a little craziness. You can’t be serious all the time. I do a lot of things to get reactions from people, to loosen them up, to get them to relax. I learned from experience that the best way to loosen Bob Krueger up was to do something kind of insane. First he would be embarrassed, but then he would laugh. Even a congressman needs to laugh.”

It was a tough campaign. Krueger’s defeat was a bitter disappointment, and Mann swore that he would never again allow himself to be caught up in politics. It was a vow he eventually broke when Krueger decided to run again.

First, however, Mann tried life as a bureaucrat. He worked for Jimmy Carter as the deputy assistant director of the President’s Council on Wage and Price Stability. By Washington standards, he was considered flamboyant and a little peculiar, but valuable because of his enormous energy and wide-ranging contacts. Once, as he and Carter approached a receiving line of Los Angeles Times executives, a bystander quipped, “Who’s that with Bob Mann?”

From the White House, Mann went to the Federal Communications Commission to set up a public affairs program. That was followed by a stint in public relations as vice president for Carl Byoir & Associates, where he was account executive and senior counselor for the video group of Time Inc., primarily working for Home Box Office.

In 1983, when Krueger decided to make another run for the Senate, he pleaded with Mann to work with him again. Mann says he really didn’t want to endure another campaign, but he felt his friend needed him. He returned to Texas as press secretary for the leading contender in a three-way race for the Democratic senatorial nomination.

The Washington Journalism Review, a media trade magazine, recently printed an article written by two men who were press secretaries for Krueger’s opponents in the Democratic primary, Kent Hance and Lloyd Dog-gett. In the article, the two concede that they deliberately manipulated Texas journalists by leaking stories that were damaging to Krueger. “Reporters in Texas did not bite on almost 75 percent of the bait we cast upon the waters,” they wrote. “But, even though some of our leaks did not turn out the way we hoped, the ones that did made a difference.”

Mann insists-and several reporters who covered the primary back him up-that Krueger’s staff used no similar tactics. He argues that leaking negative stories is slightly dirty politics (the old idealist again). Primarily, though, he faults the Texas media, especially the Dallas Times Herald, for biting so much of the bait without asking questions. “If a paper writes negative stories about one candidate, I think it has an obligation to scrutinize the other candidates. I don’t think it’s fair to print dirt about one because it is handed to you, if you aren’t willing to look into all candidates equally.”

Krueger lost in the May ’84 primary, and after a runoff, Doggett emerged as the nominee, only to suffer a shattering defeat to Republican Phil Gramm in November. Again, his candidate’s loss was a deep personal disappointment for Mann. He felt guilty: “Could I have done something differently? Did I let Bob Krueger down?”

For several months after the primary, Mann went into seclusion. He rented a place on Long Island and stared at the ocean for hours at a time. Some of his friends suggest that Mann may have spent this period in a long, drunken stupor, and he admits that he “blew it out a time or two. I guess we all did.” Mostly, though, he says he spent the time trying to decide what to do next.

During that long summer, several people-Mann won’t say who-asked him to consider working as press secretary to Sen. Kennedy. Although he had been twice stung in politics and knew that Kennedy was a likely candidate for the presidency in 1988, he agreed. On September 6, Mann moved into Kennedy’s press office to begin churning out press releases, fielding questions from reporters and helping to write an occasional speech. His first words on behalf of Ted Kennedy concerned the reappearance of the comic strip Doonesbury. “Life without Doonesbury has been far more than life without a morning laugh. His return makes our national sense of humor whole again.”

The same week that Mann joined Kennedy’s staff, his daughter arrived in Washington to help campaign for Walter Mondale. She worked with the Austin-based advertising agency, GSD&M. Mann says he was “ecstatic” that she was put on the team coordinating media for Mondale.

It is perhaps strange that the man who worked so hard for Krueger in two campaigns could shift his allegiance to Kennedy. In Texas, Krueger is considered a moderate Democrat, but that puts him somewhere to the right of conservative Republicans in Massachusetts, Kennedy’s home state.

“Krueger is the political opposite of Kennedy on some issues, especially on energy and the economy. But both men stand strongly for civil rights. Neither would compromise on that issue. And both are scholarly: They think for themselves, and they think deeply,” says Mann.

Earnestly he talks of commitment, of caring. Almost reverently, he describes small acts of kindness that he has witnessed from both men. “You learn a lot about the big things in a person by observing the small things,” he says. His is a view that ought to prevail in American politics but one that is too often lost in the natural cynicism that goes with wheeling and dealing, with compromise, with the struggle to win. How has Bob Mann managed to retain his idealism through all that he has seen and done?

During the first week he worked as Kennedy’s press secretary, Mann was asked to telephone the senator at home one evening. The first few times he called, Kennedy’s phone rang unanswered. But on the next attempt, Kennedy’s voice answered, “Hello.” Mann was amazed that his new boss would answer his own phone. He hardly knew what to say. “It was like being able to pick up the phone and call Elvis Presley, or somebody who is a legend in your mind or in the mind of the nation.”

As David McHam says, Bob Mann is still a little boy-in the best possible way.

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