Frank's Eventful Life

Frank Mankiewicz was a journalist, political strategist, public relations authority, and my friend. He was press secretary to my father, Robert F. Kennedy, during Daddy's 1968 presidential bid, president of National Public Radio, and head of the Peace Corps Latin America division. He fought in the Battle of Bulge, was a Washington fixture, and one of the funniest men I've known. Frank's autobiography, So As I Was Saying . . .: My Somewhat Eventful Life, will be published this week by Thomas Dunne Books. He died on Oct. 23, 2014.

I had lunch with Frank in October 2014, at the Hamilton restaurant in Washington, D.C., one of his favorite haunts. As soon as I took off my coat he said, "Have you seen Turner Classic Movies? You know my son, Ben, is the host."

I said yes -- both because I'm one of TCM's greatest fans, but also because this was Frank's constant greeting to me. He was so proud of Ben, and of his son Josh, a journalist with NBC.

And then of course he would talk about his wife, Patricia, as if they were just starting to date, brimming with pride and wonder he had made such a catch.

Frank and I spoke about his family, NPR, politics, the Peace Corps, his love for Italy and his disdain for Richard Nixon. Frank said we should make the day Nixon resigned, August 9, a national holiday. On one of the Watergate tapes, Nixon called Frank a revolutionary, and, about that, Nixon was right.

Frank was in one of the first Peace Corps classes, traveling to Peru. Just three years later, he was named head of the Peace Corps in Latin America.

But Frank Mankiewicz had no time for digging wells and building schools. He was an eyewitness to the brutality of the continent's land ownership system, under which generations of families were sold, as virtual slaves, along with the land they farmed.

He assumed social change would involve conflict. So to help the powerless, under Frank Peace Corps volunteers became community organizers. They helped develop new, local leaders, built coalitions among the people, and empowered them to stand up for their rights.

In that way, Frank laid the groundwork for much of the activism that later tumbled right-wing military dictatorships across Latin America, and replaced them with today's democracies.
Yet of all the subjects I enjoyed discussing with Frank, I enjoyed talking with him most about my father, Robert Kennedy.

Daddy loved Frank because Frank had no patience for delay in the face of injustice. He saw this quality in Frank the first time they met.

Daddy was planning a trip across Latin America. The State Department put together a typical schedule: embassy cocktail parties, official meetings with oligarchs, and receptions with local U.S. Chambers of Commerce.

As a Latin America expert, Frank was asked to review the itinerary. He had never met Daddy, and was skeptical.

When Daddy asked Frank for his thoughts on the itinerary, Frank was reliably candid: "It's a great trip, if you want to go to Latin America and never meet a Latin American."

This didn't go over well with State Department officials in the room. But Daddy loved it. He knew right away he found a comrade in Frank.

The two of them went into another room, rewriting the entire itinerary. Daddy said it was one of his greatest trips. He spent all of his time visiting the poor crammed into the favelas (shanty towns), meeting students on university campuses, and challenging government bureaucrats -- an experience that profoundly altered how he viewed the world.

Daddy was so impressed that he asked Frank to join his Senate staff, and when he ran for president, he asked Frank to be his press secretary.

Daddy loved Frank. He loved his directness, sage advice, sense of humor, and his willingness to disrupt the powerful. He also valued Frank's friendship for many reasons. As Frank's friend, you received your share of laughter, wisdom, and kindness.

And you received more than your share of Richard Nixon jokes.

Frank gave me all of these things. But the greatest gift he gave me was his understanding of my father.

The time is never right to lose a father. I lost mine at the age of eight.

Frank allowed me to see Daddy through his eyes: the eyes of someone who worked with him closely, who was by his side through triumphs and defeats, and who understood him as few people did.

That is a remarkable gift, and I am forever grateful.


Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.