Mitchell had already clashed with President Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, at the 1985 Geneva summit, after Regan had suggested that women didn’t care about the nuclear-arms race.
Now, a little over a year later, we would go up against each other again, during a night of high drama in the East Room of the White House where the president was finally holding a prime-time news conference to explain the exploding Iran-Contra scandal … As the president faced the press, my colleague Chris Wallace asked about something Regan had told us, that the U.S. condoned Israel’s shipment of arms to Iran. Wasn’t that in effect sending the message to terrorists or states like Iran who sponsor them that they could gain from holding hostages?
Still in full denial, the president replied no, because he didn’t see where the hostage takers had gained anything. He was still unable to accept the linkage between Iran’s ability to purchase the weapons and the Iranian-supported terrorists holding Americans in Lebanon. A few minutes later, Reagan called on me and I followed up on Chris’s question, pointing out that his chief of staff had confirmed that the U.S. condoned an Israeli shipment of missiles to Iran shortly before an American hostage was released in September of 1985. The timing was critical because it was four months before the president had issued a legal directive giving authority to make such arms shipments without notifying Congress.
Standing in the glare of the floodlights, I asked the president, “Can you clear that up, why this government was not in violation of its arms embargo and of the notification to Congress for having condoned American-made weapons shipped to Iran in September of 1985?”
Ronald Reagan said, “No, I never heard Mr. Regan say that, and I’ll ask him about that, because we believe in the embargo.” Caught up in the moment, I asked if he would now assure the American people that he would not “again, without notification, and in complete secrecy, and perhaps with the objection of some of your cabinet members, continue to ship weapons,” if he decided it was necessary. It was the kind of direct, challenging question you might not ask if you had time to rehearse it. Reagan’s answer indicated he had still not accepted the reality of what his rogue national security team had done.
He replied, “No, I have no intention of doing that, but at the same time, we are hopeful that we are going to be able to continue our meetings with these people, these individuals.” Despite everything, he still held on to the fiction that his envoys were negotiating with independent Iranian “moderates” and not the leadership of Iran. I could see panic on the faces of the president’s aides standing in the front of the room. The president had been working off a chronology initially prepared by the CIA, but as it worked its way through the NSC, it had been altered to protect top White House officials, like John Poindexter.
This left Ronald Reagan exposed and vulnerable at the most important press conference of his presidency, briefed with a misleading chronology. It was a particularly explosive combination given Reagan’s penchant for misstating facts even when his staff wasn’t misleading him. As a result, at a moment when he needed to correct the record and show that he was cleaning up the scandal, the president instead repeatedly denied a central element in the casethat Israel had secretly shipped the weapons to Iran for the U.S. The press conference ended at 8:35 p.m. Chris Wallace rushed out to the North Lawn camera position to go live, as I returned to our small cubicle in the White House to start writing a story for the Today show the next morning.
Fifteen minutes later, an announcement over the press room loudspeaker stated that the president was going to issue a written statement clarifying something he had just said. It was unprecedented for this or any White Housea correction, within minutes of a presidential news conference. The mea culpa stated, “There may be some misunderstanding of one of my answers tonight. There was a third country involved in our secret project with Iran.” Reagan was acknowledging Israel’s involvement, mere minutes after his vigorous denials.
Looking at the clock, I realized I had only minutes to get the correction to Chris on the North Lawn before our expanded post-news conference coverage concluded and the network resumed entertainment programming. I’m a good runner, but I broke all personal records getting to the camera position before we went off the air. On my knees so that viewers couldn’t see me, I handed Reagan’s statement to Chris. Without missing a beat, he read it live, adding it was “something that I have never seen before in my years at the White House.”
… But the drama of the night didn’t end with my sprint to the North Lawn. Out of breath from running, I returned to the NBC White House booth to grab a ringing phone. It was Don Regan, yelling and cursing, threatening to ruin my career and have me fired. How dare I embarrass him with the president in front of the entire world? I have never been so frightened, before or since: I could feel my stomach cramp, and stammered that I was only asking obvious questions about points that were in the public record.
The call did not end well. I’ve “talked back” to a lot of powerful men over the years, from Frank Rizzo to the men around Reagan, Clinton, and both Presidents Bush. Until recently, men running for president did not even include any women among their top advisors. It was rare to find women of any real power in the West Wing. Unused to dealing with women as professionals, men in the White House often bullied the women correspondents. But even in that kind of men’s club atmosphere, Don Regan was in a class by himself. He wielded power roughly, and ruthlessly.
Mitchell’s life took an unusual turn when President Reagan asked Greenspan to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
My life had indeed become complicated. In June 1987, I was giving a birthday party for my friend, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, who at the time was covering the White House for The Washington Post. Almost all of the other guests were reporters, except for Alan and our mutual friend Margaret Tutwiler, then assistant secretary of the treasury, working for Jim Baker. I sat Margaret next to Alan at the foot of the table, and noticed that the two of them were especially jolly, laughing and talking with great animation.
It was only after everyone else had left that I found out why. Alan took me aside and said, “Today, the president called and asked if I wanted to be chairman of the Federal Reserve.” He had, in fact, learned of his nomination in an unlikely setting. His back was bothering him, and he’d been on the examining table at the doctor’s when the presidential call came through. Of course, he’d accepted. Margaret, as an assistant to Baker, had been in on all the details.
We sat up late that night, trying to sort out how this would change our lives. Somehow, our commuting relationship had given each of us a way out of making a full emotional commitment. Now Alan would be moving from New York to Washington, and we would have to think about what we meant to each other, as well as how to handle the possible conflicts of interest.
Our first test came the very next morning, because I now had inside information that had to be kept secret until the president’s announcement. I had to prove I could be trusted, and Alan had to show he was not a risk, despite his ongoing personal relationship with a member of the fourth estate. That day, I sat with Chris Wallace in the Old Executive Office Building, the site of many White House briefings. At the end of a press conference by the secretaries of state and treasury in advance of an upcoming economic summit in Venice, Italy, Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater stood up and said, “The president will be in the briefing room for an announcement at ten o’clock.”
We didn’t see Ronald Reagan very often in the briefing room, so everyone jumped up to rush back to the White House. We needed to notify our networks quickly, so our bosses could determine whether the announcement was important enough to warrant interrupting the soap operas that generate a great deal of advertising revenue. This was all pre-cable at NBC, before we had a twenty-four-hour news operation.
As Chris and I, by then working well together, sprinted across the street toward the White House, he wondered aloud, “What personnel announcement could this be? Perhaps, a new FBI director?” Then he said, “What about Volcker?” because Fed Chairman Paul Volcker’s term was about to expire. I was very quiet.
All of a sudden Chris looked at my silent self and said, “Oh, my God, it’s Alan, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t lie to my colleague, but I said, “If you tell them, Alan’s credibility is in tatters with Jim Baker. He’ll never trust him, or me, for that matter.”
We raced to our little cubicle, where Chris informed our boss that it was indeed important to carry this briefing live, but preserved my secret as to the identity of the new appointee about to be announced. For that, I will always be grateful to him.
When Alan walked in at the stroke of ten that Tuesday morning alongside the president and Paul Volcker, a gasp went up from the briefing room; I wasn’t sure whether to beam with pride or slump in my seat to avoid notice. Years later, Jim Baker told me he and his aides had all been backstage, watching the TV monitors before they walked out, waiting to see if NBC broke the news first. An important test, the first of many more to come.
After that, I sat down with my bureau chief to work out the rules of the road. I removed myself from any economic coverage that would conflict with what Alan does. In fact, even if I weren’t a reporter, he wouldn’t be able to talk shop with me. His work is highly classified, market sensitive, and very complex. I am no economist, and his decision making covers an array of monetary and regulatory issues. I enjoy talking to him about broad philosophical issues, but when it comes to policy, we draw the line.
Certainly, we never would have gotten together if we weren’t already involved in a relationship at the time he was appointed. But neither of us had any idea Alan would ever return to government.
page > > >
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from TALKING BACK: ... to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels by Andrea Mitchell. Copyright © 2005 by Andrea Mitchell.
©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
page > > >
COVER STORY: Talking Back, Getting Hitched, Speaking Out