The unexamined life:
Andrea Mitchell rewrites her past
The late novelist Laurie Colwin was once examined by a doctor who, by way of making conversation, asked what she did for a living. When Colwin told him, the doctor effused, “Really! I’ve been thinking of writing a book myself.”
“That’s nice,” Colwin replied. “I’ve been thinking of performing brain surgery.”
In these days when everyone blessed with talent or celebrity writes a book— 170,000 of them published in the U.S. last year, up from 40,000 a generation ago— it’s useful to remember that the process of forming abstract symbols (like letters) into a cohesive manuscript of enduring value requires skills quite different from the ability to speak into a tape recorder or a video camera. The immediacy, visual excitement and immense audience reach of television news tend to obscure the essential truth: TV is a shallow medium presented by people necessarily preoccupied with superficial concerns, like visual images, camera angles and concise sound bytes. Plumb the depths (or read the books) of even the deepest thinkers in the history of TV news— Walter Cronkite, say, or Ted Koppel or Peter Jennings— and you will find, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, that there is very little there there. Descend even a level or two below these titans— say, to the likes of Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer or Larry Kane— and you will find yourself sipping thin gruel indeed. On the whole this literary genre is barely more interesting than, say, the memoirs of a prominent dentist who knows the rich and famous only through their teeth.
The NBC senior correspondent Andrea Mitchell is a case in point. For nearly 40 years this tough and relentless broadcast journalist has confronted the George Bushes, Fidel Castros and Frank Rizzos of the world with questions they’d rather avoid, in hostile situations where the whole world is watching. Next time you try to express an unpopular view at a civic meeting— assuming you dare to speak up at all— notice the churning in your stomach, and you’ll appreciate why Mitchell amply deserves her current stature and pay, no matter how extravagant the amount may seem to print journalists who labor quietly beyond the glare of global spotlights.
But Mitchell’s recently published memoir, Talking Back, is a different matter altogether. Once deprived of oral and visual aids, Mitchell stands exposed as a woman unable to paint word pictures or dramatize points with germane anecdotes. She also comes across as someone who’s unwilling to apply the same candor and toughness to herself that she usually demands of her interview subjects. Most disappointing to Mitchell’s admirers who knew her in Philadelphia in the early ‘70s (like me), this tenacious reporter chooses to overlook two of the most intriguing chapters of her early career, perhaps because they conflict with her current status as the glamorous wife of the ultimate Washington power icon, the longtime Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greeenspan. In many respects Talking Back provides a textbook example of why TV journalists should resist the temptation to write books.
All tell and no show
On camera, jostling with the bodyguards of a brutal Sudanese dictator, Mitchell can be a compelling presence indeed. But on paper she is all tell and no show. Mitchell remarks that White House chiefs of staff like Bob Haldeman and Donald Regan were “short on character or judgment” but offers no supporting evidence. She says that Regan “had been slandering me in public settings,” but the nature of that slander is for Mitchell to know and the reader to find out. Of her NBC colleague Chris Wallace, she says, “At times our personalities clashed,” but those clashes are left to the reader’s imagination. When Mitchell last saw her old Philadelphia nemesis Frank Rizzo in 1991, she recalls, “We made our peace,” but she offers no elaboration. At the 1993 Middle East peace ceremony on the White House lawn, she tells us, “The speeches were extraordinary,” but neglects to tell us what made them so.
As for Mitchell’s famous husband, she assures us that “Alan is constantly amusing” but provides no examples other than a surprise birthday party Greeenspan threw for her, where he made “a lovely and affectionate toast,” highlights of which Mitchell does not divulge.
Similarly superficial is Mitchell’s insight into the great events she has covered. Jimmy Carter’s fellow Democrats, she recalls, “did not like his domestic policies,” without saying which policies or why. Mitchell mentions her meetings with Teresa Heinz Kerry but offers no insight into Heinz Kerry’s character. Did Ronald Reagan end the Cold War? “The answer is complicated,” Mitchell concludes. Having covered the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 and then returned for a follow-up in 2003, Mitchell sums up, “To make nuclear power viable and safe, utility companies have to be good corporate citizens and not cut corners on safety even during periods of lax regulation.” And you thought the solution involved praying to the tooth fairy.
Mitchell’s prose style might best be described as “annoying journalese.” Prior to the 1978 massacre in Jonestown, Guyana, she tells us, “the lobby swirled with conspiracy theories.” The death-camp scene itself was “eerily ghoulish.” Ronald Reagan’s inauguration and Iran’s release of U.S. hostages on the same day in 1981 “seemed to rekindle a sense of national pride and hope.”
Adventures in jet lag
Mitchell’s best insights concern the difficult logistics of travel arrangements and camera setups for Presidential campaigns and international summit meetings. I got exhausted just reading about Mitchell’s adventures in deadlines, jet lag and shabby third-world hotel rooms. Yet on one critical aspect of her work— how reporters develop their confidential sources— Mitchell is not the least bit helpful.
“I worked hard to develop sources,” she tells us at one point, without elaborating. “I was developing sources among the Senators,” she says elsewhere, again without further comment. During the Three Mile Island meltdown, Mitchell “cultivated another source connected to the commission” who gave her “a purloined copy of the report” in “the stairwell of the office building where the panel was meeting.” It’s exotic but also exasperating; you want to grab Mitchell by the shoulders and shout, “Dammit, how do you cultivate these sources? Why do they cooperate with you? Tell me something I don’t already know!”
Like most TV newscasters’ books, Talking Back reminds us that overachievers don’t necessarily make great memoirists, and vice versa. Introspection is an asset to most writers but a liability to most public figures. (Hitler wouldn't have gone very far by shouting, "Are the Jews the problem? Or is it just me?") The 19th-Century upper-class Philadelphian Sidney George Fisher was a reclusive nobody whose diaries are acclaimed to this day for their incisive perceptions into his times. Napoleon, on the other hand, never wrote his memoirs, despite six idle years on St. Helena, presumably because introspection just wasn't programmed into his DNA.
Two forgotten chapters from the '70s
Mitchell may suffer from a similar psychological block. As many Philadelphians who knew her in the ‘70s surely recall, this remarkable woman who is today married to the ultimate insider (Greenspan) was once married to the ultimate outsider. And this same blonde glamourpuss who today wears Oscar de la Renta gowns to state dinners was once an outspoken brunette champion of the virtues of plain-looking women. Here is a unique human journey worth telling for the ages. But it’s a story Mitchell declines to recount, and indeed seems determined to bury.
About her first marriage: In the early ‘70s, when I knew her as a fellow parent at Greenfield Elementary School in Center City, Mitchell was married to Gil Jackson, a black man who worked in the public affairs department at Smith, Kline & French (now GlaxoSmithKline) while struggling to launch a career as an independent film producer. An interracial marriage to a man suffering from a very malignant case of multiple sclerosis cannot have been easy for a young Jewish woman barely out of college, yet Mitchell (as far as I could tell) loyally stood by her man while also caring for his two sons from a previous marriage— so conscientiously that I presumed the boys were her own. The marriage broke up shortly before Mitchell left Philadelphia for Washington in 1976, and Jackson subsequently died.
But in Talking Back Mitchell doesn't mention Jackson or that marriage at all. On the contrary, she seems to bend over backwards to erase its memory. She mentions, for example, her role as godmother to the three children of her NBC News colleague Judy Woodruff, commenting that "In many ways, they and my nieces and nephew have become surrogates for the children I never had." But she did once have children, or at least stepchildren. She simply declines to acknowledge them.
Embracing the cookie-cutter
About her makeover: A 1974 profile in Philadelphia Magazine described Mitchell as "very average-looking…someone with the frizzies…She's a little too short and her face isn't peaches and cream and she has a very intense businesslike voice, a voice that doesn't sound right doing happy talk." Mitchell herself is quoted to the effect that "We've had a lot of fine reporters in this town who've been shunted to the side because they don't have the kind of looks they're looking for on TV now….There are just too many people who don't fit into the cookie cutter."
So why has Mitchell now subjected herself to the network's cookie-cutter? It's an intriguing question— and again, one that Mitchell declines to address. In her account of the Jonestown massacre, a wise-cracking NBC script editor refers to Mitchell as "the Peruvian handmaiden," causing Mitchell to explain parenthetically to readers, "(At that time, I was a brunette.)" After Mitchell served as a panelist for one of the Bush-Dukakis presidential debates in 1988, she tells us that David Letterman asked his late-night audience whether anyone noticed that she'd become a blonde. "I was a throw-away line on late-night TV," she complains. In a book of more than 400 pages, these are the only references to her radical physical transformation.
To be sure, many of us have old marriages and old personas we'd just as soon forget. But why write a memoir if you won't confront the past? Andrea Mitchell's life is indeed the stuff of drama, and maybe even a movie. But she is not the one to tell it. When you've spent your life hop-scotching the globe for big stories in the glare of TV lights, it's difficult to imagine that the biggest story of all might be somewhere inside of you, if only you had the inclination to dig for it. â—†
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