Talking Back, Getting Hitched, Speaking Out

Illustration by Jay Bevenour

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Frank Rizzo tried to charm her, bully her, hire her, and get her fired. Donald Regan mostly bullied. Hafez al Assad’s security men picked her up and carried her out of a summit-level photo op. Fidel Castro tried evasive action. None of their antics had much effect on Andrea Mitchell CW’67, except maybe to dial up her tenacity another notch. Not for nothing did USA Today once describe her as: “Like a pit bull. With a bone.”

Mitchell’s moxie pulses through Talking Back: … to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels, her memoir of four hard-hitting decades in broadcast journalism. (“The dirty little secret about journalism is that it’s fun, like being hooked on detective novels,” she writes.) But Talking Back is not all speaking truth to power. Mitchell also observes the changing nature of Congress and the Fourth Estate; ruminates on being female in a testosterone-drenched field; and chronicles her romance with Alan Greenspan, who was named chairman of the Federal Reserve Board during their long courtship.

Now chief foreign-affairs correspondent for NBC News, a post she’s held since 1994, Mitchell got her start in radio—first at student-run WXPN, where she hosted a chamber-music program, interviewed Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and covered Election Night at Rockefeller Center. Hired by Philadelphia’s KYW Newsradio as a “copyboy” after graduating from Penn, she soon was covering City Hall and the wildly colorful Rizzo administration, and later the national political scene. By 1977 she had moved to Washington and a local CBS television affiliate, and when the station was sold a year later, she moved to NBC News’ Washington Bureau, her home base ever since. From it she has covered the White House, Congress, and the world.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Her first overseas posting was to Jonestown, Guyana, site of the mass suicide; the horrific experience of the death-site was made worse by the report she filed—which was, she allows, “if not a disaster, completely undistinguished.” (“So who’s the Peruvian handmaiden?” one sardonic NBC script editor wondered aloud, referring to the then-brunette Mitchell.) After a disastrous attempt to describe attempted-assassin John Hinckley on the air, she recalls, the president of NBC News called it “the worst performance he’d ever seen,” and “banished” her from television. But Mitchell, who puts endurance and a refusal to say No at the top of her required attributes for success, was soon back on the screen.

Other apparent setbacks turned out to be blessings in disguise. When she was passed over for the position of chief White House correspondent in 1989 and assigned instead to Capitol Hill, a colleague told the devastated Mitchell, “Sis, you’ve died and gone to reporters’ heaven.” And, in fact, her years covering Congress turned out to be “some of the most interesting and fulfilling” of her remarkable career.

Though she is now something of a media celebrity as well as a Penn trustee, her life could have turned out very differently. Having studied English literature at Penn, her family and professors “fully expected” her to go on to graduate school at Cambridge University, where she had been accepted at one of the women’s colleges. Mitchell herself was not committed to that career path, and a Penn faculty committee judging proposals for a Thouron fellowship sealed her fate. When one of the committee members dismissed her proposal to adapt some literary classics for television as “vulgar,” she decided that, instead of going to graduate school, she would “take a stab at this vulgar profession.”

Here is a selection of vignettes from Talking Back. —S.H.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/05