If It’s Public Radio, Who’s Frank Mankiewicz?

Either he is a ‘short, dumpy, rumpled man,’ or he is a ‘tall, lean and pantherlike.’

The Washington Star, August 28, 1977: Frank Mankiewicz, then press secretary to Robert Kennedy, and Dick Drayne, Mankiewicz’s counterpart for Edward Kennedy, used to get together to pool their humor and spice speeches for their respective bosses. In 1966, shortly after Bobby Kennedy survived charges of being a carpetbagger and was elected U.S. senator from New York, Drayne called Mankiewicz and said, “My boss is going up to New York to give a speech. Do you have any funny lines?”

“Why not,” Mankiewicz promptly suggested, “have Teddy say, ‘New York is the one state to have when you’re having more than one.’ “The take-off on the Schaeffer beer commercial was never used to Drayne’s knowledge, but it’s typical of the style of humor that Mankiewicz’ screenwriter uncle, Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve,” “Sleuth”) claims is in the family genes. That along with a penchant for politics, writing and “saying the wrong things at the right times.”

When word got around last month that Frank Mankiewicz had been picked to be president of National Public Radio, two questions were most frequently asked:

1. What is National Public Radio?
2. How does a guy like Mankiewicz get a job like that?

The first question was asked mostly by far-flung friends, sending him letters of congratulations and bottles of Dom Perignon. (One such bottle was from Phyllis McGrady, producer of WTTG TV’s “Panorama,” who no doubt remembers Mankiewicz as one of the two top candidates to replace host Maury Povich last winter. Mankiewicz didn’t get that job.)

The second question came in mild waves around Washington political and media circles where the mercurial life of Frank Mankiewicz has been observed with bemused attention ever since he showed up to join the Pence Corps in 1961. He eventually became Peace Corps director in Peru, and then for all of Latin America.

Mankiewicz had left behind his position as an attorney in what his old friend, screenwriter Stuart Millar calls the major motion picture law firm in Hollywood. It was a job, his uncle and others are convinced, that would have made him “a millionaire Hollywood lawyer.”

Instead, Frank Mankiewicz has been a moderately-moneyed journalist, a broadcaster, a talk-show host, a political campaign strategist for Senators Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, a freelance writer, author and, most recently, house-husband. (In February, his wife, Holly, took a job as staff coordinator for the President’s Commission on Mental Health, and he moved his office home to oversee his youngest son, Ben, 10, and to cook.)

He most recently surfaced as one of 10 losing Democratic candidates in last year’s Montgomery County congressional primary. Like Bobby Kennedy, Mankiewicz was tagged a carpetbagger in that race, although he lives in Bethesda. He “earned” the epithet because Ethel Kennedy led a team of nationally-known cheerleaders that included five senators and two congressmen. And most of the $50,000 he raised to run came from those same far-flung friends and included a check for $1,000 from actor Warren Beatty.

Mankiewicz is rather pleased about being with NPR — “I’ve never been president of anything before,” he says disarmingly. In fact, the reason he’s done so many kinds of things is that he’s always kept his options open. “The trick is to never finally make up your mind what you want to be when you grow up.” he says.

Part of the challenge at NPR, as Mankiewicz sees it, is simply to tell people what it is: a network of 175 public radios stations, set up and financed similarly to public television. There are no commercials. WETA-FM and WAMU-FM are two local members. Like PBS, NPR is partly financed by Congress through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But of the $104 million Congress voted last term, NPR “got only a small fraction — about $6 million,” according to Mankiewicz, who hopes to remedy the situation. He would like to see that NPR gets a larger share of the appropriation.

But, further, he expects to go out and raise additional funds himself — from foundations, businesses and anyone else he can find. “It would be nice if I — if we — could raise one or two million,” says Mankiewicz, who things with his connections, he’ll be able to do it. (“People answer my calls,” he states plainly.)

Mankiewicz also hopes to increase NPR’s “visibility.” NPR is not a household word in a country where there are an average minimum of two television sets per home (all with PBS channels) and an AM radio in most cars. Most NPR stations are on FM so listenership is further limited. Another chief job Mankiewicz has laid out for himself is to convince Congress to make AM-FM radios mandatory in every automobile.

Like PBS, NPR carries a good deal of live and taped cultural programming — music, drama, book and poetry readings, along with speeches, congressional hearings and interviews with artists in every field. In the area of news and public affairs, programs like “All Things Considered,” which originates in Washington, are known for giving greater in-depth attention to issues than most commercial radio and television stations. As NPR’s new president Mankiewicz is already talking about adding more comedy and sports coverage.

Mankiewicz suspects that his fund-raising potential and his own visibility were major reasons why he was chosen for the job. In fact, there was a lot more to it than that. Frank Mankiewicz, 53, has a law degree from UCLA and a Master’s in journalism from Columbia University. He has been tagged as an idealist, a humorist, a liberal. He is also a friend of the Kennedys and the Shrivers. And, although his visage shouts down the image, he is one of the Beautiful People. His profile is mountainous compared to NPR’s, which is one part of the answer to why he was selected from 375 applicants for the $65,000-year job as president. “They wanted that kind of a star person,” offers one NPR staffer.

“Nobody else even came close to him,” says Ron Bornstein, director and general manager of WHA radio and television in Madison, Wisconsin, who headed NPR’s five-person ‘’search committee.” NPR recently merged with the Association of Public Radio Stations (APRS). The presidents of each, Lee Frischknecht and Matt Coffey, respectively, were made senior vice-presidents, creating the job opening at the top.

“We interviewed 16 finalists, but there were no second, third or fourth choices.” After two interviews, concluding with “two-and-a-half hours of very tough questions,” Bornstein says, the committee “all looked at each other and said, ‘that’s our person.’ “ Susan Harmon, general manager of WAMU-FM in Washington, another member of that committee, was particularly impressed because “after we asked him questions, he started asking us questions.”

Ed Elson, president of the Atlanta News Agency and chairman of NPR’s board, says Mankiewicz was “a brilliant choice. He gives the impression of being tough and rough, a hard-bitten journalist, but he’s really the sweetest, gentlest of men.”

Conservative Patrick Buchanan, who shared an early-morning 90-second confrontation spot with Mankiewicz on WRC-AM, told the committee, “You’ll never find another man with greater integrity.” (Obviously, Mankiewicz’ political rivals weren’t on the list — some of them may be his only enemies.)

Mankiewicz’ son, Josh, 22, a desk aide at ABC news here, finds him a tough act to follow, but there’s admiration in his voice when he talks about his father. When Josh was about 12, he was at a party in Washington with his parents where St. Louis Cardinal great Stan Musial was a guest. “Musial was my Dad’s greatest boyhood idol. He wanted Musial’s autograph but he couldn’t bring himself to ask. So he asked my mother to ask.”

“Can I have your autograph for my little boy?” Holly Mankiewicz asked Musial. Signing a piece of paper. Musial asked, politely. “How old is your little boy?” Mankiewicz, standing by her side, answered, “43.”

While Holly Mankiewicz knows she hasn’t married a Greek god, she does get mildly irritated herself at the way reporters describe him. She’s made a list: “balding.” “ski-nosed,” “rumpled,” “jut-jawed,” “swarthy.” “disheveled,” “pudgy.” “protean.” When she complained good-humoredly to writer Hunter Thompson for describing her husband as “a short, dumpy, rumpled man,” in an article in Rolling Stone, Thompson corrected himself in a later piece: “Mankiewicz,” he wrote, “is tall, lean and panther-like.”

Actually. Mankiewicz is stocky, gravel-voiced from chain-smoking (he coughs a lot) and looks rather like a veteran cowboy in a cigarette ad. His wit is legendary. Stuart Millar recalls that when Edward Brooke was elected senator, Mankiewicz said, enthusiastically. “That’s marvelous! It proves that someday even a black man may be elected to the Senate.”

Mankiewicz’s friends, unsurprisingly, are devoted to him. When the son of Peter G. Peterson, Secretary of Commerce under Richard Nixon, and now chairman of the board of the Wall Street firm of Lehman Brothers, Inc. underwent surgery for a brain tumor two weeks ago, Mankiewicz hurried to New York and spent the whole day at the hospital until he knew Peter son’s prognosis was positive.

“Frank,” Peterson says, “is a very contemporary person, his third ear is very well-developed; he knows what’s going on in this world. He also has a delicious sense of humor.’’ Mankiewicz recently was emcee at a birthday celebration for Peterson, at which former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was a guest. “Frank looked at the two of us and said, ‘Unlike the administration under which you served. I want to let you know in advance that these proceedings are being recorded.”

If Mankiewicz is known nationally at all, it is for the time he appeared on national television to announce the death of Robert Kennedy. “That was the most dramatic moment of his life,” says his mother, Sara, who lives in Los Angeles. “It was the greatest blow, he never recovered from it, he is still wounded by it.”

But there was a greater blow to come. Three years ago, his sister, “and my best friend”, Johanna Davis (Josie), 13 years his junior, was killed when two taxis collided as she was walking down a street near her home in New York. The author of “Life Signs,” and a universally loved person, her death has seared her family. “I can’t handle it,” says Mankiewicz, his voice trembling even now. He cries about it every day,” says his mother.

He is the son of a famous Hollywood screenwriter, the late Herman Mankiewicz (“Pride of the Yankees,” “Citizen Kane”). His mother recalled last week that neither Frank, nor his brother Don, a screen and television producer and writer (NBC’s new series, “Rosetti and Ryan”) were the least interested in the movies or in the glamor of movie life.

The elder Mankiewicz was passionately interested in politics and most of the conversation in the household revolved around “Roosevelt, John L. Lewis, the unions. I can’t remember our ever talking shop at the dinner table.” Mankiewicz says. “There was a lot of shouting and screaming in that house,” Sara Mankiewicz remembers without amusement, and she adds, “My boys aren’t like that.” One shouting match, Frank says, occurred the evening Herman Mankiewicz brought home “this little terrorist by the name of Menachem Begin (now Israel’s prime minister).” Hospitable Herman was not a Zionist.

“If I had to guess what my father was, just from listening to him, I would have said he was a political columnist. He should have been a political columnist.” Actually, Herman Mankiewicz was the first drama critic for The New Yorker Magazine, and his sons were born in New York. When he came to Hollywood in 1926 to write for the silent films, he encouraged his friends to come too.

There is a story that when he wired Ben Hecht, a Chicago newspaperman, advising him to come out to Hollywood where he said there were vast riches for writers, he added: “But don’t let this get around.” The Mankiewicz Hollywood household soon was “a mecca for a lot of first-class Eastern writers Herman brought out to Hollywood— Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Nunnally Johnson,” among them, Sara Mankiewicz recalls.

Frank Mankiewicz served in the infantry in World War II, worked for a Santa Monica newspaper and did free-lance writing for “Newsweek” and other periodicals, and he was a civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League. He had sat behind Holly Jolley in a political science course in college where he had impressed her as a “smart-aleck.” But the two got together again when she helped him in his campaign for the California state legislature in 1950.

At the time, Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille was trying to get Mankiewicz’s Uncle Joe impeached as president of the American Screen Directors of America. “That didn’t help his campaign because people thought he had this Commie Uncle,” Joe recalls, “but Frank wrote me a letter saying, “Stay with it. I’m all for you.”

He lost that election but he won the fair maiden. Holly and Frank Mankiewicz were married in 1952.

Like everyone else, Sen. Gary Hart comments on Mankiewicz one-liners, some of them so well-known that you hear them from several people. After Nixon’s fall from grace: “We may have lost the election but none of us has gone to jail.”

During the McGovern campaign, Mankiewicz, operating in his usual free-wheeling fashion, became a minor celebrity on his own, as well as an occasional irritant to some would be supporters. After listening to the grievances of one minority group too many, he said with typically understated prescience: “Every little movement has a meaning all its own.”

At loose ends after the McGovern campaign, a mutual friend introduced Mankiewicz to Reuven Frank, then president of NBC News, now producer of NBC’s “Weekend.” Convinced that with training, Mankiewicz could be a “tremendous television reporter,” Reuven Frank hired him for a substantial amount of money to do nothing but observe. At the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, he was pressed in to service to help cover the arrival of Nelson Rockefeller.

“Frank was stationed at the elevator.” says Reuven Frank. “He had an ‘Interrupt’ device in his ear so he could hear me from the control room. When Rockefeller got to the elevator bank, there was a huge crush of people, and Frank began describing the scene. There was one tall figure who stood out above the crowd, so I said, ‘Frank, that tall figure is Wilt Chamberlain.’ And Frank answered, coast-to-coast, ‘I don’t see him.’ So I pushed the control button again and I said to Frank: ‘This is Reuven Frank in the control booth. Everything you say is on the air. Please say that the tall figure in the crowd is Wilt Chamberlain, the famous basketball player.’ So Frank did, beautifully. And I said, ‘Thank you.’ And Frank said, coast to coast, “You’re welcome.”

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