Frank Mankiewicz

updated 05/24/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/24/1982 01:00AM

"I know everyone in Washington, and half of them owe me something," claims Frank Mankiewicz. "The other half I owe." Currently Mankiewicz is spending all the time he can with the first half. As head of National Public Radio—itself esteemed, innovative but perpetually needy—he has the monumental assignment of persuading Congress to restore $24 million in proposed cuts in the NPR budget, while wooing corporate support in case he should fail. What tactics will he embrace to accomplish his mission? "Anything but the world's oldest profession," he says.

One way or another, Mankiewicz, who was Bobby Kennedy's press secretary and George McGovern's campaign manager, has been defending causes for most of his 58 years. If his idealism is often shrouded in wisecracks, Mankiewicz comes by both naturally. His iconoclast father, Herman, was the acerbic screenwriter behind Citizen Kane, and the Mankiewicz genes didn't quit there, prank's uncle Joe won Oscars for the screenplays of All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives and directed Burton and Taylor in Cleopatra. Frank's brother Don is a novelist (Trial) who wrote the pilots for Marcus Welby, M.D. and Ironside. His late sister Johanna was a TIME writer and novelist (Life Signs) as well as the wife of TV producer Peter Davis. Cousin Tom did the scripts for several James Bond movies, nephew John is a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and screenwriter, niece Jane is a New Yorker writer, and son Josh is an ABC-TV reporter in Miami. "We don't have jobs from which you retire with a pension," says Frank proudly. "Years ago, when I was going to law school, my family looked upon me with deep suspicion. My uncle said, 'We don't do things like that.' "

When Mankiewicz took over NPR in 1977, it was faintly elitist, respected and small. Since then its audience has nearly doubled—to an estimated seven million listeners weekly—and 267 stations carry its programming. The network's award-winning newscast All Things Considered, which runs 60 minutes on weekends and 90 on weekdays, has broadcast both the birth of a baby at home and an economist trilling an off-the-wall opera about interest rates. The Sunday Show specializes in classical music and cultural features. Next year it will present a dramatization of The Empire Strikes Back, with some of the original cast. NPR's 1981 airing of Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown, a documentary of tapes made by People's Temple leader Jim Jones and his followers, was described by New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis as "one of the great achievements in the history of broadcasting." Jazz Alive offers two hours of uninterrupted jazz each week, and NPR regularly broadcasts the St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Indianapolis symphony orchestras.

Still, news is the primary reason for the network's success. "Most cities don't have a decent newspaper, so NPR is the only way for most people in this country to find out what's going on," Mankiewicz argues. "TV news is like a Chinese dinner—in an hour you're hungry for more. With NPR you can make it through the night. We're a national resource that ought to be preserved."

Listeners and critics agree, but the Reagan budget cuts will force a rapid acceleration of NPR's planned five-year switch to private funding. "It's thin ice out there, and nobody else has been out to show where the cracks are," observes Mankiewicz. Then he flashes a letter from Ronald Reagan citing the private sector's responsibility for financing worthwhile endeavors. "We intend," he says, "to quote the President liberally to that effect."

On most issues, of course, Mankiewicz and Reagan are twain that never shall meet. For one thing, Mankiewicz's social consciousness was shaped by the '60s. "Living through them," he says, quoting a friend, "was like a guy who goes off on a binge and a week later wakes up to find he has a tattoo." At 37, Mankiewicz quit a $28,000-a-year job with one of Hollywood's top law firms for a $14,000-a-year post as Peace Corps director in Peru. "My wife Holly and I decided that if I stayed with the firm, within 10 years we'd have this terrific house and a lot of money," he recalls, "but nobody would care if we had lived or died, except perhaps our mothers." Nearly five years later, stepping down as chief of the Peace Corps' Latin American programs, Mankiewicz was a changed man. "The Peace Corps volunteers were always on the side of social change," he says, "but whenever people in Latin America tried to emulate the American Revolution, the U.S. government tried to emulate George III. It radicalized me."

By that time he had met Robert Kennedy, first at a briefing for the Senator's Latin American trip in 1965 and later, one morning at 2:30, aboard Kennedy's plane on its Panama stopover. An aide suggested that the fatigued Bobby receive the Panamanian press while in bed. "That would be kind of regal," Mankiewicz objected. "Yeah," agreed Bobby. "I think that's what de Gaulle would do." Then he got up and dressed. Mankiewicz served as his translator and soon afterward signed on as his press aide.

Kennedy, Mankiewicz says, was never a natural politician like Teddy and Jack: "He was the shyest person I have ever known. He didn't like small talk. He hated political dinners. He didn't like press interviews, TV appearances or the small coinage of politics—the touching and putting your arms around people. The key to being close to him, I think, was to understand the uses of silence. When he didn't want to talk there was no point talking, because he was in some interior world. Whether that was true before the President was killed, I don't know."

On June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, candidate Kennedy and his aide made the fateful trip to claim victory in the California presidential primary. "Afterward he didn't want to go through the crowd," Mankiewicz says. "He was really exhausted." Instead, they left by the hotel kitchen. Mankiewicz fell behind, helping Ethel, who was pregnant. Then they heard popping noises. "I thought it was firecrackers," he says, "until I heard the screams." Twenty-four hours later Kennedy still clung to life. "Finally," recalls Mankiewicz, "we all had a few minutes to pay our respects, and then I wrote out what we'd say." What he said was, "Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today."

Mankiewicz still feels the loss. "Things were possible then," he says. "I think they're still possible, but there's a pervading sense that nothing works, that politics is now mostly damage control. Bobby was fond of quoting a Chinese proverb, 'You can't put your toe in the river of life without forever changing the river and yourself.' If he hadn't been killed, all that despair wouldn't have happened, and who knows what he would have accomplished? Great things, I would think."

Four years later Mankiewicz went to work for McGovern. "I thought I'd hate myself if I didn't do it," he says. "I thought McGovern had the right issues, and history has tended to bear him out." Mankiewicz's skill as an advance man earned him much of the credit for McGovern's early primary wins, but he is also blamed for some of the disarray of the campaign against Richard Nixon. He regrets not urging McGovern forcefully enough to drop Sen. Thomas Eagleton as his running mate as soon as he learned of Eagleton's history of psychiatric problems. "But I never apologize for that campaign," Mankiewicz says. "All we did was lose an election. We didn't go to jail—none of us. No perjurors. No conspiracies to obstruct justice."

Inevitably, such sentiments stir memories of the father Mankiewicz loved and admired. "He believed there wasn't much point in believing something if you didn't really believe it," he says. "He was a volcano." When Frank was a child, the family's Beverly Hills home was a sort of Algonquin Round Table West. Among the regulars were F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, James Thurber, Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward. Others included Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and the cast of radio's Mercury Theater. Classic Hollywood types were not welcome. "They got serious about things that didn't matter to me, such as clothes and how much money you made," Frank recalls. "That kept me out of the movie business." When Herman's sharp tongue got him fired, as it regularly did, the family would rent the house and move into an apartment until things got better. "Like Mike Todd used to say," Mankiewicz says, "we were never poor, but often broke."

Though the family is still resentful that Herman was forced to share his screenwriting Oscar with Welles, Citizen Kane's director, not even the exclusive credit they believe he deserves could have pacified Herman Mankiewicz's turbulent soul. "There was something self-defeating about his being in Hollywood," says Frank. "I guess that's why he drank too much and insulted people who could help him. He was a gambler, and he probably was an alcoholic, but those are not sins. He never stole from the poor, he never fired anybody on Christmas. He was a good man. Most of all, he was funny and furious. I thought he was a terrific father. He told me what things were important. I believed him. I still do."

After Beverly Hills High, Mankiewicz spent a year at Haverford College, then fought as an infantryman in France and Germany. "You shot at people and they shot at you," he says baldly. "Very few people there were from Beverly Hills." Afterward he went to UCLA, where he edited the Daily Bruin. John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman were classmates. "We had prodigious battles over the paper," Mankiewicz recalls. Years later, some of Frank's friends believe, Haldeman may have been responsible for adding Mankiewicz to Nixon's enemies list.

After graduation, Frank went on to journalism school at Columbia, worked for a newspaper in Santa Monica, and ran unsuccessfully for the California Legislature. He was living in Paris as a writer when a group of friends came to town, including Holly Reynolds. He had known her at UCLA, but she had been married then; now she was separated. "We had a terrific evening and I decided we were going to get married," he says. She was a Mormon; he was a Jew. Both families were horrified. "Holly said, 'My mother objects because you're a Gentile,' " he recalls. "I said, 'That's odd. That's what my mother says about you.' " Undeterred, the couple married in 1952.

Returning to the U.S. to study law at the University of California at Berkeley, Mankiewicz seemed to have embarked on a prosperous career. Not surprisingly, it was not to his taste. In 1960 he campaigned for John Kennedy and after the election lobbied for a position as a New Frontiersman. One afternoon, on a vacation at Squaw Valley with Holly, he found a park ranger's note on his door: "Mr. Mankiewicz, call Secretary of Defense McNamara, or Sargent Shriver at the Peace Corps, or your mother." He chose Peace over Defense and his mother, and three years later was assigned to brief Bobby.

After the assassination Mankiewicz and newsman Tom Braden wrote a syndicated political column and anchored the 11 o'clock news at Washington's WTOP. They also hosted a show called Seven Days that ran once a week. "It was a different kind of news show," Frank says, "a lot like Saturday Night Live." "There was enormous pressure from Nixon to get us off the air," Braden recalls. "Senator Dole protested vigorously, but Justice Douglas said it was the best show on TV." In 1971 the naysayers and low ratings prevailed, and Mankiewicz set out on his crusade with McGovern. His candidate's defeat was followed by a devastating personal loss in 1974 when his sister was struck and killed by a runaway taxi. "If you had asked me who my best friend was then," he says, "I would have said Josie."

Grieving, Mankiewicz pushed on to write two books about Watergate, did a TV interview with Fidel Castro that he spun off into another book, and in 1976 lost a tight race for the Democratic nomination for Congress in Montgomery County, Md., his home since 1964. Son Josh suspects his father never quite adjusted to the notion of running himself. "It was curious," he says. "At every rally he seemed to be waiting for the candidate to arrive." Now, however, as he battles to preserve NPR, his sense of purpose seems fully restored. "The campaign is coming along pretty well," he says, warming to the challenge like a man who has never accepted defeat. "Why not? We've got a good candidate."

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