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Remembering Frank Mankiewicz

In the hard-boiled if fading world of print journalism, it's often said that the only way to look at a politician is down. And the worst crime of all is to work both sides of the street, doubling as a reporter while working for a pol, or vice versa.

But no reporter I ever met looked down onFrank Mankiewicz, who in a lifetime career of crossing back and forth between journalism and politics managed to bring honor, honesty, candor and wit to his work regardless of which side he was on. Frank, who died last week at 90, pulled off a string of accomplishments that made him trusted and welcomed wherever he toiled, and always in wry good humor.

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He was a Californian born into a Hollywoodtradition as the son of Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for "Citizen Kane." But after Army service in Europe in World War II and a brief law career, Frank chose politics, as a foot soldier in the 1960 presidential campaign ofJohn F. Kennedy, and later journalism.

His political bent brought him into the Kennedy administration, and the family circle, as a Peace Corps director in Peru under Kennedy brother-in-law Sargent Shriver. In 1965, he briefed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy for a trip to Latin America, and in 1968 became his press secretary in his dramatic but ill-fated presidential campaign.

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Frank was an accessible and reliable source for those of us who followed the frantic 85-day campaign that ended with Kennedy's assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. A grief-stricken but controlled Mankiewicz broke the news at a brief press conference at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan, giving only the basic facts and names of Kennedy kin present at the senator's bedside.

Thereafter, Frank was among Kennedy aides who urged Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota to symbolically take up the standard of the Bob Kennedy campaign at the party's national convention. He did so, but nothing came of it. In 1972, when McGovern ran seriously for the Democratic nomination, Mankiewicz gave up a syndicated column and joined him as a senior political adviser dealing with the press.

Running on a strong anti-Vietnam war platform, McGovern upset frontrunner Sen. Edmund Muskie, who seemed unable to take a clear stand on the war. Frank got off one of his better lines when Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana endorsed the losing Muskie cause late in the game, to no avail. With no apparent malice, Frank declared it was "the first time a rat ever climbed aboard a sinking ship."

Once nominated, McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missourias his running mate. But when Frank when interrogated him for anything politically detrimental in his record, Eagleton failed to disclose earlier shock therapy for mental illness. When that fact became known publicly, the furor forced Eagleton from the ticket, striking a fatal blow to McGovern's campaign as he lost in a landslide to President Richard Nixon.

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Mankiewicz, after a brief failed bid for a Maryland seat in Congress, took over leadership of National Public Radio in 1977. Over the next six years he was credited with broadening its listenership and burnishing its credibility as a generally unbiased source of national news.

During his tenure, NPR acquired gavel-to-gavel coverage of major congressional hearings over the nation's airwaves. But heavy programming costs and cuts in support in the Reagan years from theCorporation for Public Broadcasting eventually put NPR deeply in debt, ending Frank's reign there.

In his later years, he turned to public relations, that bane of many in the journalism fraternity, and endured criticism based on some of his clients' less revered standing in the liberal community, his political home throughout his public life. But his professionalism earnedFrank Mankiewicz a solid reputation as a straight shooter in every endeavor, be it politics, journalism or PR, despite the mutual animosity among newsmakers and the conveyors and interpreters of it.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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