Talking Back: ...to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrelsby Andrea Mitchell
No TV reporter today is more respected than NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. She’s covered stories from Jonestown to the fall of the Berlin Wall, gotten unexpected answers from such interviewees as Fidel Castro and Hillary Clinton, and balanced her high-wire career with a very public marriage to former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Dr. Alan Greenspan.
No TV reporter today is more respected than NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. She’s covered stories from Jonestown to the fall of the Berlin Wall, gotten unexpected answers from such interviewees as Fidel Castro and Hillary Clinton, and balanced her high-wire career with a very public marriage to former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Dr. Alan Greenspan. Mitchell’s candid, funny, and riveting memoir is filled with unprecedented behind-the-scenes views of the television news industry and official Washington. A classic of contemporary journalism by a woman who has taken on her profession’s entire old-boy network, Talking Back deserves a place on the shelf alongside the memoirs of Hillary Clinton and Katherine Graham.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
Talking Back... To Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels
By Andrea Mitchell
Viking AdultISBN: 0-670-03403-7
I'm not sure how I got to be so pushy. In the beginning, and even now, I wanted to emulate Miss Virginia Clair and be a lady and an ace reporter at the same time. It's a balancing act I'm still sorting out after nearly four decades in the business. Though I'm viewed by many of my colleagues (and my subjects) as aggressive, I see myself rather differently, as shy, trying to overcome a basic reserve and bookishness.
My mother, a first-generation American who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, used to worry that I was too tough when questioning political figures. As a younger woman she had a fear of authority, and she couldn't figure out where I'd developed such a "fresh mouth," as she put it. But I'd always been something of a rebel, getting into trouble talking back to teachers at school or cracking jokes in class. Maybe it has something to do with being the middle child of three, eager to carve out my niche and attract attention in my own way.
My parents provided an example of lives lived with a deep sense of purpose and a strong code of behavior. To them, and to most of their generation, nothing was as important as the work ethic. We were not just encouraged to perform; we were expected to outdistance all of our peers. If we came home with a score of ninety-five on a test, our father would ask, only half-jokingly, what happened to the other five points? Perfectionism was a family disease. I'm certain that my parents are responsible for the seriousness with which I tackled my new profession, even as a fledgling reporter. It was not a great leap from their lessons of social responsibility to my unquestioning belief as a young adult that journalism was a mission.
We were supposed to be adversaries of those in power, wardens against abuses and conflicts of interest. Both of my parents came from tightly knit Jewish families. A big part of their life was building and supporting community organizations, as well as sustaining the synagogue. In particular, my father came from a long line of scholarly, observant Jews, and took the traditions very seriously. From an early age, we were taught that we had a moral and religious obligation to give back to society.
My father built a business, manufacturing furniture and housewares, and ran it for forty years. After he finally sold it to new owners, they asked him to stay on, which he did; his attempts to leave always elicited eager offers of a more accomodating schedule, until he was past eighty. My mother worked just as hard, first as a homemaker and volunteer, then as a school administrator. She organized visits to nursing homes for our Girl Scout troop and spent years playing the piano at a school for children with developmental disabilities. Teaming up with a friend who was a former Rockette, my mother knew, intuitively, that music and dance would be good therapy. And although she began on the women's auxiliary of the local symphony orchestra, before long she was the president of the orchestra's board. When she had a goal in mind, nothing could stop her.
My family was always interested in politics. Even before we moved to the suburbs, my mother took my older sister and me to watch major events-like the first televised inaugural when Harry Truman was sworn in as president in 1949-on a television set in a store window near our apartment in the Bronx. Once we had our own television, I recall our parents watching the Army-McCarthy hearings, and being outraged by Joe McCarthy. As kids, we traded i like ike and all the way with adlai buttons in elementary school. And by the time I was in high school, John F. Kennedy was debating Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., was marching for civil rights, and the dinner-table conversations with my older sister and younger brother were dominated by arguments over the Vietnam War.
We all went to a public high school that was a hotbed of political activity. A stone building, it was beautifully situated on twin lakes that were perfect for ice-skating excursions with our father during the winter. But the bucolic atmosphere barely masked the temper of the times. The local NAACP organized groups to demonstrate at Woolworth's lunch counter, part of a national protest. A few more daring students became Freedom Riders down south. The entire school mourned the death of Mickey Schwerner, one of the three civil rights workers killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, whose mother was our popular biology teacher. According to testimony in the 1967 trial of eighteen suspects, Mickey, twenty-four when he died, was known to the Klansmen as Goatee or Jew Boy. Four decades later, a seventy-nine-year-old preacher was finally indicted for the murders.
But even more than politics or public service, my adolescence was dominated by music. My mother, a fine pianist, gave boundless time and energy to foster our musical educations. Tirelessly, she juggled a complicated after-school schedule and ferried me to violin and piano lessons, choir practice, All-County Orchestra, and eventually, rehearsals for the Philharmonic Symphony of Westchester, a community symphony. My sister, Susan, played the piano, string bass, and bassoon; my brother, Arthur, played the cello. We had two pianos in our home, in order to play duets. Often, we fell asleep listening to our mother downstairs, playing Chopin nocturnes or Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The school system also made music education easily accessible. I was in first grade when a teacher first put a violin in my hands. Practicing was a joy, not a chore. I could close my bedroom door, shut out the rest of the family, and transport myself into a self-created world of beautiful sound. A junior high school teacher took us to the Metropolitan Opera, exposing me to rehearsals of La Boheme and Lohengrin. School choirs gave me my first chance to sing Christmas carols and, later, more advanced liturgical music.
I loved all types of music and listened to everything, even if it meant sneaking a radio under the bedcovers to hear jazz when my parents thought I was asleep. Because I lived so close to New York City, a favorite high school date was a trip to Greenwich Village to a jazz club. Being underage, I borrowed an ID from my older sister to get in. On Christmas Eve, her boyfriend Lewis Greenstein-later to become my brother-in-law-took us to Alexander Schneider's chamber music concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Having a sister so close in age-only two years older-was critical to shaping the person I have become. When we were four and six years old, she protected me from street bullies and taught me to read. As I became an awkward adolescent, she overlooked my sillier obsessions-like the fantasy that I could become a cheerleader-and concentrated on the serious stuff, like helping me prepare for college. This early love of teaching persisted, leading her to a career as a college professor in two widely different fields: British and African literature. Of course, being so close in age, we also fought as children, but our father's refrain-"You two will be each other's best friends when you are grown up"-has proven true. And I've often thought it was my special bond with my sister that helped me to develop strong friendships with other women, both in and out of work, for the rest of my life.
My siblings were less outgoing than I. In our family, I was the drama queen and classroom cutup. For two summers, my parents sent me to music school at the Aspen Music Festival, even though I was technically too young to qualify for the program. For a while, I thought I might even attend music school, like Juilliard or the Curtis Institute, rather than a liberal arts college. But soon I got beyond the stage where I could coast on whatever talent I had as something of a prodigy. In the world of professional music, I was not going to stand out.
So when I entered college, it was to study liberal arts. At the University of Pennsylvania, I studied English literature. My family and professors fully expected that I would go on to graduate school at Cambridge, England, where I had been accepted at one of the women's colleges, but I was determined to do something very different. It's difficult to recall what fueled my restlessness, but my parents had raised three very independent children. My sister and her husband went to Kenya as Peace Corps volunteers in 1966, when being in the Peace Corps was still considered very adventurous. My younger brother and his wife homesteaded in a remote section of northwest Canada, building a log house and running a general store in a small mining town.
My travel lust was satisfied more vicariously. I fell in love with broadcasting, with telling stories about other people's exploits. At first, I combined my love for English literature with educational radio by importing BBC programs on Chaucer and other writers for our campus radio station. When I proposed exploring further adaptations as part of graduate study in England, a faculty committee at Penn judging fellowship proposals dismissed the idea. Though I was groping toward the kind of programming produced successfully years later on Masterpiece Theatre, one of the committee members found the notion "vulgar." She and her husband, also a professor at Penn, were proud of not even owning a television. So instead of going to graduate school, I decided to take a stab at this vulgar profession.
Four years earlier, I had been introduced to broadcasting by accident. As a freshman at Penn, during a meeting on the top floor of Houston Hall, the student activity building, I heard music and wandered down the corridor to discover the studios of the university's fifty thousand-watt noncommercial radio station, WXPN. The format was almost entirely classical music, mixed with what we called folk music (some hillbilly, a lot of blues) on Saturday night, and jazz after midnight. They told me they could use help programming music, and before long I was hooked. I loved choosing the music, timing the cuts, balancing the selections. And more than anything, I loved performing on the air, introducing the pieces and reading notes about each composition. If I was in a hurry, I'd read the liner notes on the back of the albums. When I had more time, I dug deeper and researched the background of individual compositions.
Soon I had my own program, an hour of chamber music airing every Tuesday night at eight. Pretentiously, I called it "Musica da Camera." The theme was the third movement of Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances for the Lute. I programmed my choices, back-timing each selection, and read introductions to fill the hour.
In those years, the station was entirely student operated, and we took ourselves very seriously. Nominally, we reported to the dean of students, but we were told the responsibility for protecting the FCC license that had been awarded to the university was entirely ours. The station had a four-person management team, by tradition and practice all male. Gradually I took on more and more responsibilities and by my second year became the first woman to break into their ranks by being selected to be program manager of the station. This could not have happened at the other Ivy League schools, even Cornell, which was coed; there was gender discrimination at Penn, but it was well known to have the fewest restrictions on women.
It was also a presidential election year, and as a member of a consortium of Ivy League radio stations, we participated in "network" coverage of election night. I had interviewed Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, when he came to campus to give a campaign speech. He was patient and responsive, much to my surprise, given my youth and inexperience. Heady stuff. As a result, I was a logical choice to go to Rockefeller Center in New York City and take part in election-night coverage for the Ivy stations and their radio audiences from Dartmouth to Columbia. The only problem was that when I checked in at the old Roosevelt Hotel near Grand Central Terminal, I was preregistered as "Andrew" Mitchell and assigned a roommate: a guy from Yale. It took me a while to get my own room.
Once again, no one in charge had given any thought to the possibility that a woman would be involved. I have no idea how we organized the coverage, except that I was assigned to broadcast results of the Senate races. All they expected me to do was rip and read the wire "leads," without doing any original reporting. It was pretty basic, but gave me a taste of how to combine my love of politics and broadcasting. By the summer of my senior year, I'd found a part-time job at KYW, one of Philadelphia's top radio stations and one of the first in the country to broadcast "all news, all the time." It wasn't to report the news. I only got in the door because my mother had forced her daughters to learn typing and shorthand as fallback insurance against life's surprises, and the station needed a summer-relief secretary.
Owned by Westinghouse Broadcasting, KYW Newsradio dominated the market and had a sister television station that was an NBC affiliate. As graduation neared, I decided to apply to the management-training program Westinghouse ran for young college graduates. Getting accepted was the easy part-the real challenge was persuading them to let me into the all-male newsroom. Instead, they tried to steer me toward jobs more traditionally held by women, in public relations or advertising, which didn't interest me at all. Finally, I told them I'd drop out of the management program if they'd give me an entry-level job in the newsroom for union wages, about fifty dollars a week.
With my Ivy League degree, I had talked my way into a job as a copyboy, which is what desk assistants were universally called in those days. I had to rip reams of wire reports spitting out from the old, clattering Teletype machines, then hang one copy on a nail in the wire room and distribute the others to the anchormen of each hour's newscast. It helped if you remembered which anchormen liked their coffee black and which took sugar and cream. Most of the men helped me learn the ropes. But some delighted in hazing me as the only woman in the newsroom. As best I could, I tried to deflect or ignore it.
To get interviews for their newscasts, I'd work the phones, calling locations to find someone I could interview when a story broke. In between, I'd edit and transcribe the "actualities"-that's what we called sound bites-from the interviews, and log incoming audio feeds from London and other Westinghouse bureaus.
They put me on the shift where they thought I could do the least harm, midnight to eight in the morning. Most of my friends were in graduate school, with more flexible hours. I felt isolated, especially because I had to try to sleep during the day. My social life was nonexistent. Working nights meant walking through the center of the city, crossing Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, to get to my graveyard shift. More than once the police stopped me, until I explained that I was a night worker, not a lady of the night. Although the hours were lousy, they were perfect for an apprentice reporter. The city reflected the national turmoil over race and the Vietnam War, often exploding on my watch.
Socially, Philadelphia was still a fairly provincial city, its business community governed by the mores of the Main Line. Politically, it was a cauldron of ethnic rivalries, dominated by competing Irish and Italian constituencies. When it came to political power, blacks need not apply. Add to this steaming stew the growing tensions over the Vietnam War and the movement for civil rights, and you had plenty of elements to fire the imagination of a novice journalist.
Sometimes, the opportunities were local crime stories, the bloodier the better for our audience. In 1967, the ambitious young district attorney, Republican Arlen Specter, who had developed the single-bullet theory of John F. Kennedy's assassination for the Warren Commission, was running for mayor. Specter was challenging the incumbent Democrat, James H. J. Tate. On the Saturday before the election, I was covering a Specter campaign rally on South Broad Street when the head of the homicide division, an aggressive prosecutor named Richard Sprague, wheeled up, jumped out of his car, and announced that a fugitive named Steven Weinstein had just been caught in Times Square.
Twenty-eight-year-old "Stevie" Weinstein, as the tabloid press called him, had run a tobacco shop near the Penn campus that had become a hangout for the college boys. The only problem was that one of the students had disappeared and later turned up in a trunk, floating in the Delaware River. A thirteen-state alarm was issued for the missing tobacconist. The lurid murder had become a campaign issue for the Democratic incumbent who accused his DA challenger of ignoring warnings about Weinstein's suspicious behavior. Now the murder suspect had been caught in Times Square, but much to the chagrin of the politically ambitious prosecutor, Weinstein was in the hands of the NYPD, beyond photo opportunity range for Specter until an extradition could be arranged from New York.
Excerpted from Talking Back by Andrea Mitchell
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Meet the Author
Andrea Mitchell has been chief foreign correspondent for NBC since 1994, reporting for broadcasts such as NBC Nightly News, Today, and Meet the Press. Previously she was NBC’s chief White House correspondent and has reported on presidential politics since 1972.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This author is clearly biased in her reporting, giving a free pass to every Republican she has covered while, at the same time, attacking both Bill and Hillary Clinton at every opportunity. For example, when she talks about how Newt Gingrich successfully brought down several Democrats by exposing their ethics violations, she fails to mention that he was tarred by the same brush that he was wielding against his opponents. This amounts to revisionist history. I had to laugh when she said that Bill Clinton and Al Gore appeared diminished when compared to George Bush after 9/11. Unfortunately, I soon became disgusted with this book and tossed it in the trash.
This book does not have substance. It is mostly filled with boring stories, not nearly as significant as she thinks they are. Sad to say, but even though we all have unique lives that seem extraordinary from *our* point of view, most are just boring for others. This is a case of that.
This memoir alternates between glowingly blinkered and spin-doctor snarky depending upon which political figure is being described, and, sadly, this book highlights everything that is wrong with modern journalism. One would hope that a more fair and balanced retelling of historical events had been forthcoming. Very nicely written, but, overall, quite subjective.
A well written review of the 80's and 90's from a reporter's point of view with personal and behind-the-scenes descriptions that add great interest. Confident and yet self-deprecating, honest and not self- serving.