20 Questions with Frank Mankiewicz

Getting close to Camelot is not something just anyone achieves. 

Frank Mankiewicz, the former press secretary to then-Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) who has worked for Hill & Knowlton for the past two decades, recently spent a few days in Manhattan, where he helped the Kennedy family celebrate the renaming of the Triborough Bridge to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge.

Ever self-deprecating, Mankiewicz, whose father wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Kane,” recalled with a quick, dry wit his life and times working for a man he was proud to call his friend.

So what was the recent event with the Kennedy family in New York City?
Well, it was all about the official renaming of the Triborough Bridge, which is now the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge. How long it’ll take before the people in New York are calling it the Kennedy Bridge I don’t know. Ethel, of course, was there, and [several other members of] the family. 

Did you enjoy being around the Kennedys?
Yes, very much. And then they had the gala in the evening. Harry Belafonte was there, Glenn Close, all kinds of special types. Of course, [Sen. Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.], [Sen.] Hillary [Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)], the mayor, senators from nearby. It was quite an event.

Was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) there?
No, he couldn’t get there. Caroline [Kennedy] was there. Kerry Kennedy was there. Kerry Kennedy introduced 34 grandchildren.

Any future politicians in the crowd?
One or two maybe, yeah. Robert Jr. is being talked about to replace Hillary.

What about Caroline?
It is not a serious possibility … if offered the spot she would decline … She has a lot of things she wants to do and I think that she would find the Senate confining.

I understand you’re in the process of retiring. Are you ready to get out of this business?
No, not really. I’m not ready to get out of working; I’m not sure I ever will. I still have an office at Hill & Knowlton, and most important of all, a parking space. And I represent a few clients. But then, what the hell, I’m 84, I’m entitled, right?

Do you see any similarities between President-elect Barack Obama and your old boss?
Well, certainly there is similarity in terms of the way the public looks at them. He’s the same generation that John Kennedy was. The same sort of new breath of air, new generation, bringing all kinds of new people into politics. A lot of people voted for the first time for Obama in the primaries. There seems to be a sense that he’s more a thinker than a politician. We’ll see.

Were you surprised when the Kennedy family, at least some members, endorsed him?
Yeah, I was, somewhat. Ted did, and Caroline and Ethel. But there were others who stayed with Hillary. But yeah, I was surprised. But in retrospect, no. He really was the bold, new, interesting guy who was saying new things, talking about real change. I must say, he got much more impressive as the campaign went on.

Will you go to inauguration parties or balls?
I certainly want to go to the inauguration. I don’t think I’ll go to the parties. I’ve gone to a couple of inaugural balls along the way, and I’ve never been so bored. But yeah, wouldn’t miss it. It’s a historic moment, good God. I was born 60 years after the end of the Civil War and here I am going to watch the inauguration of a black president. Pretty sensational. I’m writing about it. I’m writing a memoir.

Have you been in touch with the Kennedys since the senator’s illness?
I have not talked to him personally but I have talked to the family and some staff. I gather he is doing fine. I mean, how well can you be doing when you have a malignant brain tumor? I’m quite hopeful he’ll be around for a while.

Do you feel like a member of the family?
Maybe extended. Family is very much the family. Close friends and former associates are a close circle, but I would never think of myself as family. Maybe with a very small “f.”

Do you believe in the Kennedy curse with accidents? Do you think there is anything to it?
No. I don’t really. I know it’s easy to talk about it, but no, I don’t believe very much in the supernatural at all.

Did he ever talk about it?
No. He could barely talk about the assassination of his brother. He only did it once, during a speech in Indianapolis. He referred to him as a “member of my family.”

Have you been to the compound in Massachusetts?

Oh, sure. Yeah. It was always quite an experience. I’ve been there four or five times, maybe more. Sessions of all kinds, brainstorming. I’ve been to the Shrivers’ a couple of times, too.

What’s your fondest memory of your old boss, Robert?
I remember once we were in San Francisco for some hearings on poverty. We were going to dinner one night and we stopped by the Fairmont Hotel and the hotel guy said, “You know, Senator, you’re on the board of the American Repertory Theater. Once a week we invite a bunch of underprivileged high school kids in to talk about the play — could you come tonight?”

“No,” he said. “Sorry — we have a dinner invitation.”

He [the hotel worker] said, “Maybe you can come by after dinner?” So we said, “Sure.”

We’re walking back and he [Kennedy] says, “What’s that repertory theater and why am I on the board?” I said I had been responsible for that because a repertory company is the one where they take different roles and there are no stars. It’s good training. So he liked that.

Then we had some ice cream and went up to our rooms.

Now, about two years later he’s running for president and we’re in Los Angeles meeting with African-American ministers from Watts and elsewhere. “Well, Sen. Kennedy, what can we do in our own community?” they asked. He said, “Well, you could start any number of poverty programs; you could hire some interesting people to come teach now and then.”

And then he paused and he looked over at me with a big grin and said, “You could start a repertory company.”

Were there other moments like that?
Yeah, I once set up a debate in early 1967 for the first use of the satellite on television. CBS came to us. Kennedy in Washington against [Ronald] Reagan in Sacramento. Students would be asking questions.

It was the most one-sided, awful debate I had ever seen. Reagan was a polished performer and Robert Kennedy kept looking at the monitor instead of the red light. He looked disinterested and his answers were too long. It was chaos. For the rest of the time I was with him, discussing whether he should do something, he would turn to me and [say], “Oh yeah, you’re the guy who dropped me in the debate with Ronald Reagan.”

He sounds like he had a good sense of humor.
A lot of humor. He was very shy. No small talk. The only politician I’ve ever known who is fond of silence. With people in a room there would be silence for 10, 20 and 30 seconds. You know, people would talk about the rain or the Redskins. Not him. If he had something to say he’d say it.

What do you dislike most about reporters?
Maybe asking questions about something that’s in the news that they don’t know very much about, just to be on record. But basically I like reporters. And he did, I must say. We had traveling reporters with us through the presidential campaign in 1968. I won’t say who, but two or three of them asked [to be taken] off the assignment because they liked him. They were getting too close and they thought it was going to affect their coverage. He was very easy to like.

What does a good press secretary need to know?

Oh, God. They need to know an awful lot of technical information that we didn’t have then. They’ve got to have an intimate knowledge of how to use the Internet. They’ve got to be aware that there’s always a news cycle. We had two then — that’s it. No cable. No CNN. No Fox. And it made for totally different relationships with the media. You didn’t have to worry about constantly being on message. Now we have a different news cycle every half-hour.

How did the assassination affect you?
Like everyone else, it stunned me. I had to arrange the funeral. It hit me, of course. Changed my life. Changed everybody’s life.

Are you addicted to your Blackberry, like the rest of Washington?
No, I’m not. Maybe I will be. I gather the president-elect is addicted to two things — cigarettes and the BlackBerry. But it’s annoying. You’re talking to someone and while you’re talking to them they’re looking down at the palm of their hand and sending a message with their thumbs. There used to be an expression, “all thumbs,” [which meant] clumsy. Now it means you’re adept.

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Betsy Rothstein at (202)628-8516 or e-mail her at betsyr@thehill.com.

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