Acclaimed NBC TV correspondent Andrea Mitchell recalls how she made her journalistic bones covering former mayor Frank Rizzo.
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.
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