Frank Mankiewicz passed away last week at the age of 90. There is a generation of Americans who remember Frank as the press aide to Robert Kennedy who had the solemn duty of announcing RFK’s assassination to the world, but Frank was to be found at the center of some of the most interesting moments of the 20th Century—from early Hollywood, to World War II, to Kennedy’s Camelot, to the growth of National Public Radio.
Frank grew up the son of the screen writer and movie legend Herman Mankiewicz of Citizen Kane fame. He experienced war first hand as an Army infantryman and saw combat at the Battle of the Bulge. He also ran the presidential campaign for George McGovern—which was my first real political memory. I ran around the neighborhood singing “McGovern, McGovern, he’s our man, Nixon belongs in the garbage can…” As it turns out, Frank and I were both on the right side of history on that one.
But the Frank I remember was a great mentor–the consummate public relations pro and a downright decent human being. His office was a revolving door for young PR acolytes and seasoned communicators who all relied on Frank’s sage counsel. Working with Frank was akin to a master class in PR, and the lessons we all learned from Frank were the simplest but the most essential.
Words matter. Frank loved the power of words. How we say things makes a difference. To Frank, le mot juste was paramount. A writer for a father no doubt drilled this lesson, but nuanced language was so important in the political years of Frank’s career—Frank always said if you wanted to know where a politician really stood on the issue, wait for the but. As in, “I support equality for everyone, but….”
Relationships are critical. With an office next to Frank’s for many years, I marveled at stream of influencers, journalists and Hollywood stars that were always calling. His loyal secretary would sing out “Frank, Warren Beatty is on the phone.” “Frank, it’s Leslie Stahl.” “Frank, Ted Kennedy for you.” The air was electric. Something was always happening.
Stay plugged in. Frank understood that PR was the nexus of business, politics and entertainment. At 90, Frank always had a great book recommendation, had seen the latest movie, and watched the hottest new TV shows. Whether it was breaking news story, Supreme Court case or polling data, he always had a clever opinion and a marvelous quip. He appreciated those around him who were plugged in–and had a keen eye for fakers. About a lackluster job candidate he once said, “I’ve written more books than he’s read.” It kept us all sharp.
The world has lost great thinker and a great man. What is not lost are those lessons we can all learn from Frank Mankiewicz.