Frank and Ben: Serious Men Who Didn’t Take Themselves Too Seriously

By Norman Sherman

Two extraordinary people left us this past week. They were stars in the Washington sky. They stood alone from their colleagues. Yet, Frank Mankiewicz and Ben Bradlee had nothing in common.

Ben Bradlee defined what a WASP really was: Well off, Ivy League educated, old roots, an insider family. The other, Frank Mankiewicz, was the anti-WASP: Jewish, Hollywood, fleeting fame.

But in quest and style, they were alike: Both sought powerful positions; they enjoyed being in charge; they were skilled under pressure; they were quick to recognize clay feet; they saw life with humor and irreverence.

I had dealings with Ben when I was Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary in the sixties and did a profile of him for The Washingtonian magazine in the seventies. I never came away from a contact with him, in person or by phone, no matter how contentious, without a smile, content that he heard me and would at least consider what I had to say.

I dealt with his reporters every day for years and they reflected his standards. They didn’t always take me seriously, they weren’t always pleasant, but I knew they were seeking the truth and being thorough enough to meet Bradlee’s journalistic demands. Bradlee was a presence even when he was not there.

One day after the film, “All the President’s Men,” starring Jason Robards, came out, I saw Bradlee on the street and yelled, “I liked you better in ‘A Thousand Clowns.’” Smiling, he yelled back, “Fuck you!”

Frank and I had periodic contact in 1968 when he was Robert Kennedy’s press secretary and I was Humphrey’s. It was a time for easy hostility, but Frank never invited it or permitted it. Good humor was always there to defuse the most contentious times.

Later, I shared an office with Frank and a few others after George McGovern lost his presidential race in 1972. It was a rare day when Frank didn’t arrive smiling, even rarer that he wasn’t politically wise, sharing, eager to see the bright side.

One day he asked me if I wanted to meet a Southern governor who was coming in to see him. I said no—why would I want to meet some Georgia cracker?

Another time, he was in Havana, hoping to interview Fidel Castro who hadn’t been on American television. He was shaving one evening when there was a knock at the door. In his shorts and foamed up, he answered the door and there was Fidel. Frank invited the leader in, they talked as if Frank were in a Brooks Brothers suit, and the Castro interview was broadcast on CBS..

Both men influenced the substance of American politics in their lifetimes. They were serious men who did not take themselves too seriously. May they rest in peace.
Services for Frank Fabian Mankiewicz, 90, will be held at the Friends Meeting House in Washington, D.C., at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, October 28.

Services for Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, 93, will be held at the Washington National Cathedral at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, October 29. C-SPAN will have live coverage,

Their services, one at a plain Quaker meeting house, the other at a great Gothic cathedral, are likely to be as different as the two men.

Speak Your Mind