Shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Mitchell asked him about his campaign promise to change the Pentagon’s position on allowing gays and lesbians in the military. He stated his intention to follow through on his promise, which only made things harder for him when the military refused to go along.
Clinton held a news conference on January 29  to announce his decision to delay the decision for six months. It was contentious. I asked if he hadn’t thought through the practical problems when he made his campaign promise, and what he had learned from dealing with the powerful members of the Senate and the joint Chiefs? He stiffened, and glared. You could always tell when Clinton was angry, because a muscle in his cheek would twitch visibly.
I knew I would not win a popularity contest with the Clintons or their aides. At times, it saddened me, because there was a part of me that wanted to be liked, and despite all my years of reporting, I never quite adjusted to the role of skunk at the garden party. But I responded instinctively to any whiff of hypocrisy on the part of politicians. The Clinton people considered me far too tough and edgysomehow, they expected campaign correspondents to perform as boosters, not adversaries.
I may have annoyed Clinton, but he hadn’t lost his sense of humor. When USA Today described me in a lengthy profile as “White House watchdog” and a “pit bull,” the president’s press aides photocopied my picture from the newspaper and attached it to every chair in the briefing room. They then took a picture of the briefing room, populated with “Andrea Mitchell” in every chair, and gave it to the president to sign. He inscribed the resulting photo: “To Andrea MitchellHere’s my nightmareThey all become clones of you and I vanish under the pressure! One of you is great but sufficient. Bill Clinton.”
Greenspan’s famously oblique speaking manner left more than just economists scratching their heads.In October of 1996, Alan gave me a surprise birthday party at one of our favorite Italian restaurants and made a lovely, affectionate toast. Few of our Washington friends had ever heard him speak so emotionally or sentimentally. Our close friends Elaine Wolfensohn and Jim Lehrer, who were seated next to each other, thought that he was about to propose in front of everyone. Elaine still says it was Alan’s basic proposal; it was just that none of us, including me, recognized it at the time. We were heading toward marriage, but I’m not sure I realized it, even then. My birthday gift? A diamond ring, though not in a traditional engagement setting. I still didn’t get it.
That Christmas Day, we joined Judy Woodruff and Al Hunt and their children for breakfast and to open gifts, as we always do. Later, back home, we were sitting in the den when Alan asked whether I wanted a big wedding or a small one. Finally, even I understood what was up. That was as close to a proposal as he came. I guess you could call it an evasive proposal, as ambiguous as some of his testimony before government committees. As he once told Congress, if you think you have understood me, you must be mistaken. He thought it was more fun to propose in Greenspeak, as I call his testimony. He swears that he had asked me to marry him three previous times, and that I hadn’t understood what he’d been saying.
By then, Judy and Al and the children had already left for Vail, as they do every year on Christmas Day. We reached them there that night to share our news, but didn’t tell anyone else except family. We had invited friends for dinner later in the weekKay Graham, Sally Quinn, and Ben Bradlee, among otherson the twelfth anniversary of our first date. With everybody sitting in the dining room, we told our friends we were engaged. Kate Lehrer was at home sick, but Jim was there, and he jumped up and ran to the telephone to tell her. Kay Graham shrieked. No one had imagined that we’d ever become respectable …
We weren’t planning to go on a honeymoon, because we both had too much work to do. But the festivities continued the following evening, when our friends Elaine and Jim Wolfensohn gave us a beautiful wedding reception at their Washington home so we could include many friends who’d not been to the ceremony. The next night, we went to a state dinner, our first as a married couple. I wore a black lace gown, also designed by Oscar [de la Renta], and although the dinner was in honor of the prime minister of Canada, it felt as though we were still celebrating our marriage.
I was seated at the president’s table, next to Dan Aykroyd, and across from Marylouise Oates, a writer and political activist who had been in the antiwar movement with the Clintons in the 1960s. At some point, Aykroyd, the president, and Marylouise all started singing the Beatles song, “I Saw Her Standing There.” Looking around, I tried to reconcile the cultural dissonance of a group of baby boomersincluding the president of the United Statessinging anthems of our youth, beneath the solemn portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room.
As NBC’s chief foreign-affairs correspondent, Mitchell traveled to many of the world’s hot spots, including the Middle East. In 1994, she flew to Syria with President Clinton as the lone “pool reporter” for the American networks.Of all the tough leaders I’ve encountered, [the late Syrian leader] Hafez al Assad is the only one who managed to shut me up, much to the amusement of the president of the United States. Bill Clinton flew to Damascus in October of 1994 because of signals from Syria that Assad, Israel’s implacable enemy, was finally rethinking his refusal to consider peace. The president’s first meeting with Assad, nine months earlier, had created an opening for serious contacts …
We were told there would be a press opportunity, but only for cameras. No writers would be permitted. As the only representative for the networks, I told the White House that we would not allow our cameras to cover the meeting without an editorial presence to report the facts and surroundingsstandard rules. After huddling with their Syrian counterparts, Clinton aides told us Assad’s men had backed down, but only if I pledged not to ask a question. I made no such promise, as they knew I wouldn’t. Just before I entered the room, the Syrians reminded me once more not to say a word. I simply smiled…
I lined up with the camera crew, mentally rehearsing possible questions to ask. Even if I got lucky, there would be only one opportunity at best. Should I try to get Assad on the record about Israel or terrorism? If I dared to ask a question, what would happen to the camera crew? Assad and Clinton were sitting in armchairs, on either side of a coffee table, not unlike the arrangement in the Oval Office. I waited just long enough to make sure I was not interrupting their small talk, and asked the Syrian dictator why he still supported terrorismhoping to provoke any kind of response.
The White House and Syrian presidential aides were flabbergasted. No reporter, and certainly not a woman, had ever dared ask Hafez al Assad a question at a photo opportunity. To my amazement, instead of ignoring me, he began to answer, vigorously challenging the premise of my question. As he did later in a joint news conference with Clinton, Assad denied that anyone could name one incident in which Syria had committed a terrorist act. But before he could finish, I suddenly felt myself being lifted off the ground. With the cameras safely focused on the presidents, two burly Syrian security men had come up from behind, grabbed me under the elbows, and were carrying me out of the room. To my amazement, Assad continued to answer my question, but effectively, I was silenced. If I’d protested against what the thugs were doing, I would have interrupted Assad, and ruined the photo opportunity for all of our later broadcasts.
Watching me be ejected so ignominiously greatly amused Clinton, who doubled over with laughter. He later told me that he’d finally found a way to shut me up. Perhaps, but it didn’t last long.
When George W. Bush was sworn in for his second term, Mitchell watched, interviewed, and ruminated over some of the changes she’d seen in her four decades as a journalist.Inaugurations are also political celebrations for the victors. After the swearing-in ceremony, I climbed onto a flatbed truck to broadcast the Bushes’ progression along the parade route from the Capitol to the White House. It was as close as Washington ever gets to a hometown event, at least in the years since the Redskins won the Super Bowl. I’ve seen so many of these grand occasions: the bittersweet inauguration day a quarter-century earlier when the American hostages were released from Iran, but too late for Jimmy Carter. The departure of Ronald and Nancy Reagan from their “little cottage” on Pennsylvania Avenue after one of the most consequential presidencies in modern history. And Bill Clinton’s exit a dozen years later, following two terms of political triumph and scandal. I have been an eyewitness to all of these histories, personal and political, but in the role of observer, not participant. To me, that remove is still the price of admission for a front-row seat, despite the revolution that has turned politicians into anchormen and activists into bloggers.
Along this journey, I have made sacrifices I sometimes regret, although none so important that I would take the path not chosen. As I was warned so many years ago, this is indeed a course for a long-distance runner. If asked what qualities helped me earn whatever success I have had in this venture, I’d have to list endurance near the top. It is what drove me to the finish line of the New York City Marathon in 1996, two days before the election, and still carries me through assignments in remote regions far from family and friends. But perhaps even more important is an insatiable curiosity about the way other people live their livestheir hopes, disappointments, privations, and triumphs. Those are the stories that inspired me to want to be Brenda Starr, “girl reporter,” imagining an adventurous life then available only to women in comic strips.
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