Frank Mankiewicz – Mentor & Friend

| December 8, 2014 | 0 Comments
Frank Mankiewicz is  pictured next to a bust of Robert Kennedy.

Frank Mankiewicz is pictured next to a bust of Robert Kennedy.

Frank Mankiewicz was Latin American director of the Peace Corps, president of National Public Radio (NPR), nationally syndicated columnist (he made Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list”; described by the president’s chief of staff as a “known revolutionary”), author of “Perfectly Clear: Nixon From Whittier to Watergate,” an executive of Hill & Knowlton, one of the world’s largest public relations firms, and press secretary to Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

But when he passed away recently at age 90, among the many obituaries written about Mankiewicz in major American newspapers, it was his role with Bobby Kennedy that made the headlines.

Some years ago he told The New York Times, “I used to say — still do say — that I could win a Nobel Prize and be named chief justice of the Supreme Court and serve two good terms as the president, and they’d write in my obit, Frank Mankiewicz was an aide to Robert Kennedy, and they’d be right. And I’d accept that proudly.”

Frank Mankiewicz was also my friend and mentor.

Before his recent memorial service I flew to Washington, DC, to be present at the Friends Meeting House where he would be remembered – and remembered he was for 90-laugh filled minutes.

“Laughed filled at a memorial service? Yes, Frank was extremely intelligent, and, as with many people of high intelligence, extremely funny.

His wife, the novelist, Patricia O’Brien, began the remembrances by telling of Frank’s last few days in the hospital, with his family at his bedside. The nurses were trying to get him to breathe deep, but without success. Ms. O’Brien stepped up and said, “Frank, breathe deep; deep Frank; breathe deep.”

At which point, she said, Frank opened his eyes and said, “Deeply.”

I knew Frank for 46-years and 230-days, but while our contact over the past several years had been limited to occasional phone calls and visits while in Washington, my admiration and love for him never diminished.

I promised when he died I would write my own tribute and remembrance of him.

This is that tribute:

I first met Frank Mankiewicz Friday, March 10, 1968, at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Denver, just down the street from the Colorado State Capitol.

Pierre Salinger, President’s Kennedy’s press secretary, who I had met while working for Lt. Governor Glenn Anderson of California, hired me as a press aide in Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and I was assigned to Nebraska, then a key primary state. (In that campaign, you were identified by who had hired you; so I was a “Salinger guy.” Others were “JFK guys,” or “Teddy’s guys,” or “Bobby’s.” I think, in time, I became a Bobby guy.)

With Nebraska’s Lt. Governor Phil Sorensen, one of the famous Sorensen brothers (Ted Sorensen was President Kennedy’s principal speech writer), I had flown to Colorado to meet Senator Kennedy, who would spend Saturday campaigning across Nebraska.

After meeting Mankiewicz around midnight that Friday, he took me up to the senator’s suite to meet the candidate. Senator Kennedy was leaning against the bedroom wall. He was wearing a long blue night shirt. His arms were folded, and he looked dead tired.

That was understandable, as he had spent a long day campaigning with Caesar Chavez in the Great Central Valley of California. It had been their first meeting, and the senator had been deeply impressed by Chavez.

But now, tired and appearing puzzled by this stranger standing in front of him, he nonetheless welcomed me to the campaign. I thanked him, said good night, and left his suite.

The next morning, early, the senator took Freckles, his beloved Spaniel, for a walk; and then, in cars and buses, we caravanned to Denver’s airport for the flight to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in the state’s far west, near the Wyoming border.

Before the flight that morning, Frank had taken me aside to discuss the day ahead, and said, “I’ll romance the local press. You romance the national press.”

So Frank Mankiewicz would entrust to me the responsibility of dealing with the national press, including some of the most famous broadcast and print reporters in America (this was the campaign journalists wanted most to cover), while he dealt with Nebraska’s local and state media.

It made imminent sense. Mankiewicz would charm the locals, and the national media, having already experienced Mankiewicz’s charm, would be content to deal with one of the campaign press aides, who, conceivably, might know more about the campaign in Nebraska than Mankiewicz; which was understandable, since I was there and he wasn’t.

But it would be wrong to assume Mankiewicz’s method was the norm for people in positions like his; it wasn’t then, it isn’t now. There’s a lot of peer jealousy in political campaigns, especially, and most assuredly, at the presidential level, and frank’s kindness and good judgment, made a lasting impression on me; it also gave me a sense that maybe, new hire or not, I would have a meaningful campaign role.

The other thing Frank Mankiewicz told me that day is something I’ve never forgotten, nor deviated from.

It was this:

“If you can’t tell the press the truth, tell them nothing at all.”

To understand the impact that had upon me you need to know I would subsequently serve two U.S. Senators as press secretaries (Charles Goodell, Republican of New York and Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa), and would continually deal with media for the next 46-years.

As a Senate press secretary, serving two very high profile senators, inevitably situations would arise where I felt I needed Frank’s advice.

In one of those situations involving Roger Mudd of CBS, that was potentially troubling, I called Mankiewicz and explained my concern. He said he would call Mudd. He did, and that was the end of it.

When it became apparent in 1972 that Tom Eagleton was in trouble as George McGovern’s running mate for vice-president in the presidential campaign, I made a decision as a Capitol Hill aide to push Sargent Shriver as Eagleton’s replacement.

The role I played in making that happen, Shriver succeeding Eagleton, is not widely known, but those who know the story know that absent my role Shriver might never have been McGovern’s choice to join the ticket. (That is not an idle boast, as it has the merit if being true).

Frank Mankiewicz and Gary Hart were McGovern’s top aides in his presidential campaign, but Frank was the person I worked closest with in Shriver’s behalf. (In the end, of course, Eagleton or Shriver, it didn’t matter, as Nixon carried 49-states, losing only Massachusetts.)

Not long after Eagleton was gone from the ticket and Shriver was campaigning with McGovern, Mankiewicz appeared on the “Today Show.” The Eagleton/Shriver matter was the focus of intense questioning of Frank.

Watching from our home in McLean, Virginia, I knew one of the answers Mankiewicz gave was misleading. It troubled me, so I called his home and left a message.

This was the message:

“Frank, remember the first time we met in Denver with Bobby, and you told me, ‘If you can’t tell the press the truth, tell them nothing at all.’ You didn’t do that this morning on ‘Today.’”

At 11 pm that night Frank called. He said:

“I got your message. You are right. I was wrong. I’m sorry. Good night.”

In 1975 Frank became one of the first speakers to The City Club of San Diego, and he would return numerous times. He was always insightful, always amusing.

To claim him as my mentor, as I always have, is a badge of honor; and to have been his friend, a very great privilege.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He may be reached at,

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: National News

About the Author ()

"Mine Eyes Have Seen"