An Inspirational and Instructive Memoir
Andrea Mitchell, a real-life Brenda Starr, looks back at an action-packed career in broadcast journalism.
Talking Back…to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels
By Andrea Mitchell
432 pages; $25.95
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
Cooped up in a North Korean hotel, not allowed out without an escort, NBC's Andrea Mitchell did something to make every reporter cheer: She sneaked out with a handheld camera and filmed ordinary life in the "forbidden kingdom," until someone turned her in and soldiers hauled her off.
Still defiant, Mitchell first refused to turn over her tape, then secretly switched it for a blank one, saving the real tape for broadcast.
In this unusually interesting memoir, veteran reporter Mitchell, 58, shows again and again that old-fashioned, elbows-out doggedness. Combined with another old-fashioned trait — her unabashed love of journalism — it makes for both inspirational and instructive reading.
Mitchell's jammed career began with local broadcasting in Philadelphia and Washington, followed by three decades with NBC, covering the White House, Congress and stories from Cuba to China.
Initiative has marked every stage. An early break came after she "talked my way into a job as a copyboy" at a Philadelphia station. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, "the news director needed someone to cover what was happening in the streets, and I volunteered immediately." She was investigating (and tracking down video of) Osama bin Laden long before 9/11.
Her book's title, "Talking Back," refers to her willingness to confront the powerful. She was once carried away by Syrian security forces for interrupting a photo op with President Clinton to ask Hafez al Assad why he supported terrorism. But Mitchell also balances gumption with the kind of human feeling reporters don't ordinarily brag about.
"As tough as I can be in reporting a story," she writes, "I don't enjoy going in for the kill." In Philadelphia, Mitchell contended fiercely with the nail-tough Mayor Frank Rizzo. But when Rizzo died, she wept.
Perhaps her biggest White House nemesis was Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff Donald Regan, whom she describes as an "abusive" bully who "wielded power roughly, and ruthlessly" and who "had been slandering me in public settings..the low point of my White House career."
But as Regan himself plunged from power, Mitchell says, "I couldn't help feeling kindly toward him."
She delivers the book's most hair-raising tale, however, with punishing brutality. Mitchell describes interviewing the ultraconservative U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). She learned that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, a Democrat, had been killed in a plane crash, and she solemnly informed Helms.
"Jesse Helms looked at me, smiled, and said, 'That's good.'
"I was stricken. I didn't know — and don't know to this day — whether he really heard me. But I think he did. And I think that was his honest response, unfiltered by the conventions of Washington."
Mitchell, an increasingly rare broadcaster better known for tough reporting than glib commentary, readily shares unflattering embarrassments and mishaps. She was briefly banished from TV to radio after freezing during a report on John Hinckley, passed out on the press plane accompanying President Reagan to China, and once was summoned to do an early-morning "Today" show report that, after a night of "more than my share of wine," found her not "completely sober."
Mitchell also seems candid about the special pressures facing women in television and the damage that reporting can do to family life. Indeed, her marriage provides the most extraordinary material here. As wife of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Mitchell balances outsider reporting status with insider access to government and society's highest rungs.
When Colin Powell was named secretary of state, she "considered him a friend." The book is filled with sentences such as "we had spent a weekend at the [Gerald and Betty] Fords', along with the Cheneys."
The couple's solution to potential conflict involves "erecting a firewall between his work and mine." But Mitchell recognizes early on, after meeting more Washington insiders through her husband, that "I might be gaining unusual access, but losing some independence."
She attended, but didn't report on, a private dinner where an argument erupted between United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld over the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo, and eventually Rumsfeld "got up and left in the middle of dessert."
So here is a collection of good stories, inside dope and real-life quandaries, all from someone still eager enough to compare herself to Nancy Drew and Brenda Starr. "After all these years, I still love the chase for news," Mitchell says. "I often wonder how I got to be so lucky."