Frank Mankiewicz, who came from a family of Hollywood luminaries but forged his own path in Washington politics and media, serving as a top aide to presidential candidates Robert F. Kennedy and George S. McGovern, as an ambitious president of National Public Radio and as a rainmaker at a prominent public relations firm, died Oct. 23 at a Washington hospital. He was 90.
The cause was a heart attack, said Adam Clymer, a longtime friend.
Mr. Mankiewicz (pronounced MAN-ka-witz) was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and, in a career spanning six decades, a lawyer, journalist, author, congressional candidate and player in liberal Democratic politics.
“I know everyone in Washington, and half of them owe me something,” Mr. Mankiewicz once quipped. “The other half I owe.”
As Kennedy’s press secretary in 1968, he played his most public role as the campaign official who solemnly announced the news of the candidate’s assassination that June.
The balding and beefy Mr. Mankiewicz was admired on the hustings for his acerbic wit, usually doled out between puffs on his Kool cigarettes.
Reporters once queried him about two women who visited the Kennedy estate in McLean, Va., and were bitten by Brumus, the candidate’s Newfoundland.
“I only wish to point out,” Mr. Mankiewicz said, “that of all the women’s legs at Hickory Hill today, less than one-half of 1 percent were bitten.”
His smart-aleck remarks endeared him to the press corps, which regarded him, if only by pedigree, as one of its own.
His father, Herman, was a onetime theater critic for the New Yorker magazine and a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table social set in New York, which included Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Herman Mankiewicz went on to write the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1941 film “Citizen Kane,” with director Orson Welles sharing the writing credit. A few years later, Herman’s younger brother Joseph Mankiewicz won Oscars for writing and directing “All About Eve” and “A Letter to Three Wives.”
Frank Mankiewicz grew up in Beverly Hills at the knee of family intimates including F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Greta Garbo and the Marx Brothers, whose early film comedies Herman Mankiewicz helped produce. Harpo Marx put in regular appearances at Mankiewicz family Seders. “He would pick up the Paschal lamb bone and lead a parade around the table,” Mr. Mankiewicz recalled.
Mr. Mankiewicz said he avoided the film industry after watching it embitter his father, an alcoholic who despised the movie colony but found the money too good to refuse. Instead, Frank Mankiewicz received degrees in journalism and law and had a flourishing legal practice in Hollywood by the mid-1950s.
The 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy kindled his idealism, and Mr. Mankiewicz’s campaign work bore fruit when he was offered his pick of jobs in the new administration.
As he told People magazine, he was vacationing with his family at California’s Squaw Valley ski resort when he found a note from a park ranger tacked to his hotel room door: “Mr. Mankiewicz, call Secretary of Defense McNamara, or Sargent Shriver at the Peace Corps, or your mother.”
He became Peace Corps director in Peru — a position that halved his $28,000 legal salary — and over time rose to chief of Latin American programs for the volunteer organization. He met Robert Kennedy in 1965 while briefing the senator from New York before a trip to the region. Mr. Mankiewicz became his press secretary, a role that carried over to Kennedy’s 1968 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Mankiewicz was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, when Kennedy finished addressing supporters in the hotel ballroom and was exiting through the kitchen to avoid crowds. Mr. Mankiewicz said he had fallen some paces behind the candidate to help Ethel Kennedy, the senator’s pregnant wife, when he suddenly heard a popping sound. “I thought it was firecrackers,” he said, “until I heard the screams.” It fell to Mr. Mankiewicz to publicly announce Kennedy’s death the next day.
Mr. Mankiewicz spent the next several years writing a syndicated political column with Tom Braden, who later helped start the CNN program “Crossfire,” and appearing as a television commentator.
In 1972, Mr. Mankiewicz became a senior political adviser to McGovern, a liberal, antiwar Democratic senator from South Dakota. With campaign manager Gary Hart, a future U.S. senator, he helped engineer hard-fought victories in the presidential primaries. Mr. Mankiewicz’s portfolio also included handling the media.
During the Wisconsin primary, he dashed off a riposte that his boss used against John V. Lindsay, the patrician New York mayor: “He is the only populist in history who plays squash at the Yale Club.”
When another rival Democratic candidate, Edmund S. Muskie, continued to receive support after losing the Wisconsin primary, Mr. Mankiewicz observed, “That’s the first time I ever heard of rats climbing aboard a sinking ship.”
In the general election, McGovern lost to President Richard M. Nixon in a landslide. A major factor in the defeat was the revelation in news accounts that McGovern’s first choice as running mate — Sen. Thomas Eagleton (Mo.) — had once been hospitalized for depression and had received electroshock therapy.
Mr. Mankiewicz blamed himself for failing to vet Eagleton more thoroughly and for not advising McGovern, despite the widely perceived stigma of mental illness, to drop him more quickly. Shriver ultimately was chosen to fill out the ticket.
“I think the reactions to [Eagleton’s] severe illness were fair,” Mr. Mankiewicz said in a 2012 interview with the Web site Reddit. “I think McGovern’s essential decency delayed that decision.”
After a failed bid for a House seat in the Maryland suburbs, Mr. Mankiewicz took over National Public Radio in 1977. The outfit was so obscure at the time that he had never listened to a broadcast, he said, and his mandate was to use his political connections and publicity skill to raise the organization’s profile.
During his six years at the helm, the NPR news department more than doubled and listenership nearly tripled. He helped start the popular program “Morning Edition” in 1979; opened the first overseas bureau, in London; and used his access to top Democratic lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) to obtain gavel-to-gavel radio coverage of important hearings.
Such initiatives brought the network prestige and acclaim, but NPR couldn’t keep pace financially with the aggressive growth. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration moved in the early 1980s to cut public broadcasting funding, spurring Mr. Mankiewicz to make a then-startling push for commercial underwriting.
Mr. Mankiewicz’s tenure ended with a $5.8 million deficit, which nearly pushed NPR into bankruptcy before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting granted a last-minute funding reprieve.
The crisis, which gradually lifted, resulted in the decentralization of future funding, with local stations receiving more money and greater control over programming. Mr. Mankiewicz had fervent supporters and detractors, but he was generally credited with helping to transform the network into a vastly more influential news operation.
“On the whole, he was essential to shaping what NPR became,” said Michael P. McCauley, the author of “NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio,” published in 2005. “But it was a very painful chapter, and he let his ego take over and spent money hand over fist.”
For the past three decades, Mr. Mankiewicz worked in public relations, first with Gray & Co. and then as vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, where clients included the Church of Scientology, the tobacco industry and the country of Kuwait leading up to the Persian Gulf War.
Frank Fabian Mankiewicz was born May 16, 1924, in New York. After Army service in World War II, he graduated in 1947 from UCLA and the next year received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. He obtained a law degree in 1955 from the University of California at Berkeley.
His first marriage, to Holly Jolley, ended in divorce. In 1988, he wed novelist Patricia O’Brien of Washington, who survives, along with two sons from his first marriage, Josh Mankiewicz of Beverly Hills, a correspondent for “Dateline NBC,” and Ben Mankiewicz of Santa Monica, Calif., a host on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel; a brother, Donald Mankiewicz, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter; four stepdaughters, Marianna Koval of Brooklyn, Margaret Koval of London, Maureen Koval of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Monica Krider of Atlanta; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Mankiewicz, who recently completed a memoir, wrote two scathing books about Nixon, co-edited a series of interviews with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and co-authored with Joel Swerdlow “Remote Control: Television and the Manipulation of American Life,” published in 1978.
In a city where the politically ambitious often let power brokers have the last laugh, “Frank the Mank,” as friends dubbed him, was comfortable one-upping them.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) once recalled the time when his brother Robert brought his newborn son to the Senate office and introduced the infant to Mr. Mankiewicz, who also had recently become a father.
“Bobby went over to Frank’s desk, held up the baby and said, ‘Frank, say hello to Dougie. He’s just finished reading Camus.’ Frank laughed, and without missing a beat he said, ‘Senator, that’s fabulous. You and Dougie have to meet Ben. He’s just finished reading the complete works of Shakespeare.’ And he continued, ‘And next week, he’s going to read it all again right-side up.’ ”