Me and Frank
Acclaimed NBC TV correspondent Andrea Mitchell recalls how she made her journalistic bones covering former mayor Frank Rizzo.
By the time Frank Rizzo ran for mayor in 1971, I was covering politics for KYW Radio, having graduated from the police and schools beats. Rizzo’s Republican opponent was Thacher Longstreth, the tall, courtly head of the Chamber of Commerce and former City Council member.
A Princeton graduate who favored bow ties, Longstreth was a perfect foil for Rizzo-the antithesis of the tough cop and urban legend he was opposing. The Republican civic leader might have carried the Main Line in suburban Philadelphia, but in a racially divided city, Rizzo embodied working-class voters’ resentments and aspirations. Although black Democratic voters defected, correctly reading Rizzo’s law-and-order appeal as a coded racial message, the tough cop won with more than 53 percent of the vote.
The morning after he was elected, I interviewed the mayor-elect about his transition and, among other questions, asked who he’d appoint to be his fire commissioner. To the shock of everyone listening, he laughed and said, “How about my brother?” He was serious, ignoring rules against nepotism to jump his kid brother several ranks and put him in the newly formed cabinet. It was a good hint of the way he planned to govern: headstrong, oblivious to ethical norms, and in a style entirely his own.
Figuring out how to cover Rizzo as mayor was a special challenge. He was always ready with a cutting comment putting down women, but, paradoxically, that may have helped me be a better journalist. His barbs only inspired me to ask tougher questions.
Rizzo took office and started remaking city government in his own image. KYW carried his news conferences live, and they soon became celebrated confrontations between the bullying mayor and the handful of reporters willing to take him on.
On one occasion The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that police had shot an unarmed teenager in the back in West Philadelphia. The community was outraged. I called the mayor to see if he would agree to investigate the police.
No, he said. “My men are right when they’re right, and they’re right when they’re wrong and they’re trying to be right.”
The mayor called back a few minutes later to complain that his previous comments were off the record. No deals, I said, not after the fact. He was furious, and I was in trouble. After that he was determined to make my life miserable.
I often wonder why I was either naive or gutsy enough to confront Rizzo as I did. Six feet two inches tall and 250 pounds, he was tough, profane, powerful and very intimidating. I found myself standing up to him almost as a matter of instinct, only afterward realizing that I was courting danger.
The reporters who covered Rizzo worked in room 212, directly across from the mayor’s office in City Hall, a baroque building that fills a large square around a central courtyard at the conjunction of Broad and Market streets, only blocks away from the modest brick building where the Continental Congress wrote the Constitution. What would the founders have thought of the way Frank Rizzo ran Philadelphia?
The take-charge new mayor meant business. Unfortunately for the city’s taxpayers, that often meant business for his cronies.
Reporters started investigating juicy contracts, like the ones awarded for airport construction and the new sports stadium to companies with suspicious City Hall connections.
The state launched an inquiry into police corruption. And the head of the Democratic Party, Peter J. Camiel, accused Rizzo of offering him a political bribe, a trade of city contracts for the right to name the next candidate for district attorney-in the bathroom of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, the same hotel where I later covered the first outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
At the suggestion of an enterprising reporter, Zack Stalberg of the Philadelphia Daily News, the two men agreed to take lie detector tests. As the city’s former top law enforcement official was being strapped in, in full view of the press, he said, “I have great confidence in the polygraph. If this machine says a man lied, he lied.”
The next day the Daily News gleefully bannered the test results across its front page: “RIZZO LIED, TESTS SHOW.” In fact, he had lied on six out of 10 questions. The story was colorful enough to get picked up by The New York Times.
Frank Rizzo was already known nationally as the hard-line former cop who was the only big-city Democratic mayor to support Richard Nixon for reelection.
Locally, he was the politician who would tell a news conference, without blushing, “Andy Mitchell, I’m so tough I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”
Calling me by my nickname was a liberty he took deliberately. Being familiar was a way of belittling and co-opting us at the same time. Rizzo’s heroes were Nixon, Moshe Dayan, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover-all tough guys.
He held court at night in Palumbo’s, a South Philadelphia Italian restaurant, but as soon as he was in office, he started building a stone family mansion in the tony WASP neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. Since there was no way that Rizzo could have afforded it on his public salary, the Daily News investigated and discovered that the mayor had accepted favors from contractors. Somehow he got away with it.
On Wed., March 13, 1974, three years into his first term, what was left of his relationship with the press blew up when the mayor stormed out of a news conference that was being carried live on television and radio.
According to an editorial in the Daily News that day, “Andrea Mitchell, KYW’s soft-voiced but hard-nosed City Hall reporter, one of the best in the business, leads off the questioning. She asks the mayor about the issue that has the whole city talking, the police corruption report. Frank Rizzo, the man who pledged to run his administration in a fishbowl, passes. He’ll only answer questions on parking at the airport, he tells reporters.” It had been Rizzo’s first news conference in four months, and it lasted all of five minutes.
There was another side of Rizzo, the one that made him such a successful politician. When he rushed to the scene of a crime from a black-tie dinner one night, news photographers captured him in evening clothes, a nightstick stuck in his cummerbund. He had a police chief’s desire to always be in the middle of the action, even if it meant tripping over a fire hose at a refinery fire and breaking his hip.
This was the Rizzo who leveraged his endorsement of President Nixon’s reelection into unusual access, for a Democrat, to Washington’s Republican corridors of power. He was a huge political asset, the archetype of the “hard hat” Democrats Nixon hoped to convert into permanent Republicans.
Rizzo was popular, even with the reporters who were most skeptical about his behavior. And he went to extraordinary lengths to try to co-opt his adversaries, especially in the press corps.
On Jan. 24, 1972, Rizzo brought us along as he headed to Washington to see Richard Nixon. He bragged that he had so much clout he could get all of us into the Oval Office with him. When we arrived at the White House, we were ushered into the press briefing room, in those days crowded with cuspidors and overstuffed brown leather armchairs.
While the mayor met with the president, we waited, clearly sticking out as a collection of local yokels in that assemblage of older national correspondents. That is until White House deputy press secretary Gerald Warren appeared in the doorway to the lower press office to ask if the Philadelphia press corps would come forward to be escorted to the Oval Office.
In a White House photo of that day, I’m the one hanging back, watching Rizzo introduce my newspaper colleagues to the president. All I remember is being so overwhelmed at finding myself in the Oval Office that I forgot to take notes. But Nixon’s secret Oval Office taping system captured the moment: There, you can hear Rizzo introduce me to the president saying, “Oh, and Andrea Mitchell there is the political lady for KYW.”
The tapes also reveal that during their private talks before we were brought in, Rizzo tried to ingratiate himself with Nixon, telling the president he didn’t support Democratic leaders like Hubert Humphrey or Edmund Muskie.
“Their philosophy is completely, it’s not my thinking. I guess I must say I’m for President Nixon.”
The two men also discussed what they called “the extreme left” and confided their sensitivities about race relations. Nixon said to Rizzo: “I know they say that we’re a bunch of racists.”
Rizzo replied reassuringly, “Let me tell you this, Mr. President, in my opinion, you have the blacks like I have the blacks.”
At our final meeting in 1991, when I returned to Philadelphia to report for NBC News on Rizzo’s last campaign, Rizzo, a little grayer and some pounds heavier, welcomed me into his office and reminisced about his earlier days in politics.
Why did he give up a big-bucks radio show to go back into politics? “I love the challenge,” he said, adding, “You know the best part? Dealing with the press. I love to go head-to-head with some of them suckers. I really do.” We made our peace.
Only a few months later I was watching a budget debate from NBC’s Senate broadcast booth when the phone rang. It was a Philadelphia reporter asking me to comment on the death of Frank Rizzo. He had died of a massive heart attack in the middle of his comeback campaign.
Once asked what he wanted on his gravestone, Rizzo had joked, “He’s really dead.”
When it was finally true, I cried.
Andrea Mitchell will discuss her new memoir Talking Back … to Presidents, Dictators, and Assorted Scoundrels on Thurs., Sept. 15, 8pm. $6-$12. Free Library, Montgomery Auditorium, 1901 Vine St. 215.686.5322. www.library.phila.gov