Date: February 1st, 2003
If you're a lobbyist for a well-known Washington, D.C., public relations firm, it pays to know people. In fact, knowing people is pretty much what you are paid to do.
Frank Mankiewicz knows a few people. His resume reads like the blue pages in the District of Columbia phone book: president of National Public Radio, regional director for the Peace Corps in Latin America, campaign manager for 1972 Presidential nominee George McGovern, and press secretary to the legendary Senator Robert F. Kennedy, just to pick a few highlights.
At age 78, Mankiewicz has earned his status as a true insider. But Washington isn't the only town familiar with the Mankiewicz name. He grew up in Beverly Hills, and his father, Herman Mankiewicz, was an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who is credited with Citizen Kane, widely regarded as the best movie ever made-among his achievements. Frank's uncle, Joseph Mankiewicz, won Oscars a-plenty for making movies likeCleopatra, and Suddenly Last Summer, directing Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and other movie stars to do their very best work.
Despite his renown, Herman Mankiewicz's was less than enthusiastic about his work, and rarely talked about it. His dissatisfaction turned out to be liberating for his son, whom he encouraged to pursue whatever truly interested him.
"My father would have thrown a fit if I had gone into the insurance business or something like that," Frank now says.
As a result, Mankiewicz's current job, as vice chairman of the giant PR firm of Hill & Knowlton, continues to keep his batteries charged even after 20 years.
"I enjoy it," he says. "I don't see any reason to retire. I don't feel tired or aging. I think if I were looking at insurance claims all day, I might want to retire."
For someone who is among a very few individuals mentioned by name-and criticized-by President Nixon on the notorious secret White House tapes, Mankiewicz is remarkably accessible. He admits to being a "couch potato." In his down time, he says, he reads mystery novels ("I only read for about 8 minutes before bed. You can't get into anything all that heavy in that amount of time."), and he watches sports on TV.
One thing he doesn't stomach, however, is television news. "It lowers the comprehension level," he says, describing a brief piece he watched on the conflict in Venezuela. "It was confusing. It can't be anything but confusing. You can't cover both sides or provide any context in that ten seconds."
While he doesn't condemn television itself, he deplores the influence it has on American life. He describes his children's generation as "knowing less" than his own, and blames the gap on the dependence on television at the expense of reading. In addition to that stack of Elmore Leonard novels by his bed, Mankiewicz himself reads anything he can get his hands on: newspapers, magazines, reports, and books on a variety of subjects.
Television's real toll, in his opinion, is extracted from our political process. The expense of television advertising has shifted the focus for political leaders from their character and convictions to their ability and willingness to raise money, he says.
"I don't know any elected politician who doesn't regret time spent raising money," he says.
Today, he says, politicians' aides give them long lists of names to call and ask for money. He considers that "embarrassing."
"We didn't do that at all with Senator Kennedy," Mankiewicz says. "We gave him issues to study - reports, books, newspapers. If I had said to him, here is a list of people we think you should call to raise money, he wouldn't have done it."
For the people that work with Mankiewicz on a daily basis, he brings stately sensibility to the seemingly uncivilized world of Washington politics. His thoughts, opinions and advice always seem a bit more profound, whether concerning the Iraqi showdown, a potential baseball strike, or the latest movie blockbuster.
In the infamous Watergate tapes, you can hear the grudging respect the former President and his top advisers accorded Mankiewicz during a conversation with Chief of Staff Alexander Haig.
"All this crap about resignation," Nixon snarls. "They were throwing that out. They're not - Mankiewicz and Braden and the rest of them - they're not seriously thinking that I'll resign?"
"He's a revolutionary, Mankiewicz," Haig replies. "Mankiewicz is a known revolutionary."