Journalist Andrea Mitchell: Asking Tough Questions Is 'Very Empowering'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Andrea Mitchell, will receive an Emmy for lifetime achievement next Tuesday at the News and Documentary Emmy ceremony. She is NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports." Over the years, she's covered Congress, the White House, presidential campaigns, the State Department. She's reported from around the world, including war zones. She's asked tough questions to presidents and dictators. And various powerful people have tried to get her fired.
Mitchell is also a trailblazer for women journalists. She started her career in 1967 as a, quote, "copy boy" at KYW News Radio in Philadelphia. She became famous in the city for her tough coverage of a tough and divisive mayor, Frank Rizzo. Her reputation for asking hard questions, and for shouting them, if necessary, has continued through her career.
I recorded this interview with her yesterday, shortly after the news broke that journalist Cokie Roberts had died. We talked about Cokie at the start of our interview.
Andrea Mitchell, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your Emmy. You have certainly earned it.
ANDREA MITCHELL: It's such an honor and a little bit overwhelming - something I did not expect. But I guess if you live long enough, you get awards like these.
GROSS: Not necessarily. It takes more than living long enough (laughter). So before we look back on all the years you've done so far in your career, I want to talk a little bit with you about another pioneering woman journalist, and that's Cokie Roberts, who worked with NPR for many years and at ABC News.
And you came up at similar times. You were both women journalists in broadcasting at times when there were very few women in broadcasting in the journalism end of things. Were you close? Did you know her well?
MITCHELL: We were close. We were friends. She was a mentor. And she's really irreplaceable. She was literally raised in the halls of Congress, so she knew Washington so intimately. Her father was the majority leader, the late Hale Boggs. Her mother, later a congresswoman, Lindy Boggs, then an ambassador to the Vatican - just spoke to how much she was a fabric of this town in the best sense of it - always able as a journalist to take things on but also understanding family, faith, the politics, of course, at 22 national conventions on the floor on ABC with David Brinkley, who was one of my mentors when he was the co-anchor of "NBC Nightly News" before he went to ABC. So we shared father figures, if you will.
GROSS: Did you and Cokie Roberts talk much about being women in journalism? Did you do things to support each other even when you were working for competing networks?
MITCHELL: Cokie and I did so many things together, along with several others - Judy Woodruff, my close friend. But Cokie was there before any of us - in Washington, at National Public Radio. Such a mentor and friend and pathbreaker. And she spoke out for women. She wrote about women in her books. She wrote about the first ladies.
And then breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 2002. I was diagnosed in 2011. And she, you know, helped comfort, explain, heal to so many women with this disease. And then, of course, her recurrence and the fact that she eventually succumbed to the side effects to some of the treatment. It's just profoundly upsetting, obviously. And it's such a loss to women, to journalists and to everyone in Washington and throughout the country and the world.
GROSS: Well, Andrea Mitchell, I want to talk about you. This is a celebratory occasion for you. You're getting the Emmy award for lifetime achievement. I want to play a pretty recent clip. I mean, you are famous for asking tough questions and standing up to powerful people, not backing down, not being intimidated. This is an example of that.
And it's from 2017, about seven weeks after President Trump was inaugurated. And this is a kind of famous moment in your career. Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state, had not answered questions from reporters in his public appearances. And he was doing a photo-op with the Ukrainian foreign minister at the State Department. And you just started shouting questions at him. And at the end of this clip, we will hear you being escorted out of the room. So here's Andrea Mitchell trying to get Rex Tillerson to answer her questions.
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MITCHELL: Mr. Secretary, China has said there will be consequences for the deployment now of anti-missile defenses in South Korea.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.
MITCHELL: Can you respond?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you, guys.
MITCHELL: Can you respond to...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you. We're leaving.
MITCHELL: Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, can you respond...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.
MITCHELL: ...To the threats from China?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you. Thank you. Let's go. Thank you.
MITCHELL: Mr. Minister, are you sure the...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.
MITCHELL: ...Trump administration will be strong against Vladimir Putin?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you guys. We're leaving now.
MITCHELL: Haven't been in yet.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
MITCHELL: Can you assure us that Russia...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Andrea, press are departing the hall (ph). I'm sorry.
MITCHELL: ...Will not be able to move further in Ukraine?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Andrea, press is departing the room. Let's go.
MITCHELL: We haven't had any time in here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm so sorry, but we're going to have to leave. Let's go.
GROSS: OK, describe what we're not actually seeing, because this is radio. What's happening to you physically as you're trying to answer - to ask these questions?
MITCHELL: You can hear the shutters of those still photographers. And I'm being taken by the arm, you know, and just escorted out politely. And they're telling me that the time is up. And I'm trying - and we're backing out. I'm ducking under the camera, trying not to get in the camera's way, and just trying to get an answer.
And this had followed months of asking politely face-to-face in one off-the-record session, and then proceeding to ask, you know, why can't we have access? Why can't we travel with the secretary? He wasn't taking reporters on the airplane. This was the first time since Henry Kissinger, who traveled with the press corps, that the State Department press corps was not in a pool, traveling, paying our own way with the secretary around the world.
And for months, at least, I traveled commercially, trying to keep up with a military jet, which was impossible. And the fact that Tillerson did not want the press corps to be involved really hurt him. And so I went - finally went to a photo opportunity and tried to get a question in. And you heard what happened.
GROSS: Did you expect him to answer?
MITCHELL: I did. Because I think that when confronted, you know, face-to-face with someone, usually, you could get an answer. And we shouldn't have to ask questions chasing White House officials across the North Lawn after they've made an appearance on Fox News on their way back to the briefing room when the briefing room is there for daily briefings. And I think that it really hurts the American people, and it hurts the administration.
MITCHELL: Rex Tillerson could've amplified America's message to the world if he had taken the trip - the press with him.
GROSS: If Tillerson didn't want to answer your questions, were there other ways he could have handled it besides getting aides or security to physically escort you out of the room, to remove you from the room?
MITCHELL: Sure. He could come into the briefing room and answer questions there. He could bring us on his airplane, as Mike Pompeo could. He only takes a very limited number of people, and not the television correspondents right now. Because there aren't enough seats, technically, for the camera crew, the producer and a correspondent, he's only taking six people. We used to travel routinely with Republican and Democratic secretaries of states for decades. I've been covering the State Department since 1994. And we traveled everywhere - 13, 14, 17 people at a time from the press corps. You can't go to Iraq, Afghanistan, to conflict zones, to India and Pakistan in one day on a commercial flight. It's - you can't go from Israel to Lebanon on a commercial flight. And so there was no way to get to Beirut when I was traveling with Mike Pompeo back in March from Jerusalem because there are no flights. And you can't drive and catch a plane in Jordan and get there in time. And they told us that we couldn't get into the motorcade once we got there.
So they've made it just impossible. And I think they're hurting themselves and that the message of U.S. foreign policy is not being translated to the rest of the world. And it's not coherent because, of course, they don't have people filling these key posts. So there are major problems for foreign policy right now.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who also hosts "Andrea Mitchell Report," (ph) noon Eastern Time on MSNBC. We're going to be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and host of "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on MSNBC. And next week, she will receive a Lifetime Achievement Emmy at the News and Documentary Emmy Awards.
So I want to play another clip that made news. And this was in July of 2018. You were interviewing Dan Coats, who was then Trump's director of national intelligence. And this was at the Aspen Security Conference in front of a live audience. And in the middle of the interview, you were handed some breaking news. Here we go.
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MITCHELL: We have some breaking news. The White House has announced on Twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.
DAN COATS: Say that again.
MITCHELL: You - Vladimir Putin coming...
COATS: Did I hear you - did I...
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah.
COATS: That's going to be special.
GROSS: Andrea Mitchell, what was going through your mind then?
MITCHELL: Well, it was shocking to the audience, to Dan Coats - shocking that he did not know that the president of the United States had just invited Putin to the White House five days after a disastrous Helsinki summit, when he was being widely criticized for having kowtowed to Putin for having asserted that Putin knew better than American intelligence about whether Russia had intervened in and attacked the United States in our election in 2016.
So he'd - all this criticism for the private meeting with Putin in Helsinki, for no note taking. And five days later with no notice to anyone in the national security team, no consultation, which is really one of the signature flaws of the John Bolton leadership at the National Security Council, this invitation is proffered on Twitter announced by the then press secretary, Sarah Sanders. And for me to be telling him this and for him to be so transparent rather than immediately going into a protective mode and pretending that he either knew about it or, you know, blowing it off or saying, well, I can't really comment about that, to his credit, Dan Coats was completely open about how bizarre this truly was.
GROSS: Dan Coats, who is no longer in the administration.
MITCHELL: And this was actually one of the - and I feel very badly about this - this was one of the early blows to his relationship with the president.
GROSS: Oh, was it? Yeah, so you're kind of responsible for this. Uh huh.
MITCHELL: Well, you know, I felt a sense of responsibility. The fact that Dan Coats, even months later, was so honest about saying that North Korea would never denuclearize. And being so rigorous about the credibility of the intelligence assessments in his public testimony was really important. He didn't come to the table with a lot of intelligence experience. He'd been an ambassador, a political appointee to Germany. He'd been a senator. But he really felt the need to follow the appropriate norms, if you will, of the intelligence community.
And what was really awful, later - I discovered immediately afterward - he had checked in with the White House, with the National Security Council, right before going on stage - his people had - and said is anything going on, they had asked. And no, nothing's going on. And what had happened was that apparently Putin and the president had talked. And Putin had said to Bolton I want to invite - I mean, rather, the - President Trump said to John Bolton I want to invite Putin. He's going to come to Washington. And instead of John Bolton saying that's crazy, it's right after Helsinki, you're being criticized for being too cozy with Putin, this is really bad, let's call the intel people, let's call Pompeo, let's check with, you know, Jim Mattis, he just immediately went to Sarah Sanders and said, you know, the boss wants to invite him. Let's tweet this out.
They knew that Dan Coats was on stage. I mean, it just says so much about how this White House does not operate in terms of the proper role of a national security adviser. And it really damages the president and his policies.
GROSS: So let's look to earlier parts of your career. When I moved to Philadelphia in the mid-'70s, you were famous in the city for your really aggressive, assertive coverage of then-Mayor Frank Rizzo. And you were always asking him really tough questions. You were kind of in his face. And he was such a divisive figure in Philly. He - you know, some people loved him. He had his base. But, you know, there was a - liberals had started a campaign to recall him from office. He was the former police commissioner. And as police commissioner and mayor, he was known for being hostile to African Americans and hippies and for the excessive use of force. So did he ever try to bully you? And did you find him intimidating when you started covering him on all news radio in Philadelphia?
MITCHELL: He did try to intimidate me all the time. He bullied me a lot. He was a classic bully.
GROSS: How did he bully you? What was his technique?
MITCHELL: He - well, one thing he did was to threaten to get me fired. I didn't know the full extent of it until years later. The news director told me how he had gone to the chairman of the board of the company that owned the radio station, which was Westinghouse Broadcasting at the time, and tried to get me fired. And for him to be calling, you know, the chairman of the board, who barely knew who I was - and he then called all the way down the chain of command and said who is this, you know, girl reporter, whatever it was, you know, in Philadelphia. And the news director, to his credit, said if she makes a mistake or messes up, we'll deal with it. Otherwise, we won't. And they just protected me from knowing just how bad it was. But there was a lot of bullying and a lot of intimidation. And he was very popular. And...
GROSS: He's very popular and very unpopular.
MITCHELL: And very unpopular, and, you know, as you've pointed out, you know, really hostile to African Americans - accusation of police corruption, police brutality. There was one incident where the Philadelphia Inquirer had reported - after the change of ownership, the Inquirer became - was owned by Knight Ridder. And they became much more assertive and aggressive about really digging down on police brutality. And they had reported on a case where a young man, an African American man - I think a teenager - was running from the police in West Philadelphia. And the police shot him in the back, as my recollection goes. And I was reporting on this. And I called the mayor to get his reaction. He was, of course, the former police chief. And he said - he used to call me Andy Mitchell - and he said Andy Mitchell, my men are right when they're right and where they're right when they're wrong and trying to be right.
And I quoted it on the air in the next hourly. And he called me absolutely furious. When we were talking, you know, that was off the record, or some such thing. And he was cursing me out. And I said Mr. Mayor, you said that to me. And I called you. And it was on the record. You know, we were - it was a report. And it's a big case on the front page of the Inquirer. And he said something really threatening about how I would never work in that town again. And after that, it was really hostile.
And it was hard being a woman because there were so few women reporters that he didn't - he wasn't familiar with, you know, dealing with women reporters. And then, there were a lot of male reporters whom we knew from being police chief, and he hired them and put them in his cabinet. So these were newspaper guys - and I loved a lot of the guys in Philly; they were all my friends - but some of them took big jobs in the city administration. So I really was an outlier. I was female, and I was asking difficult questions. And frankly, I thought that he was a racist.
GROSS: You've been a trailblazer for women in journalism. When you started your journalism career in the late 1960s, did you consider yourself a feminist? Had you thought about the lack of equality that women had and how you'd have to fight to have a career in journalism and how important it would be as a precedent to have that fight?
MITCHELL: I was forced by circumstance to - yes, to feel that I was going to have to fight for it because at the very first job that I got, that was being denied to me. I was ready to join the management trainee program in this broadcast company. And they said but you can't be in the newsroom. And I said, well, why not? And they said because we've never had a woman do that. You can go into advertising or promotion, which I didn't have any interest or skill for. So I said, well, let me have an entry-level union job as a copy boy, which is what they called us, copy boys. And they let me become the first woman copy boy, ripping wire copy, which was then printed on a teletype. I mean, when you think of the transformations we've had in technology just in the years that I've been - as part of this profession - but there were no other women. There weren't role models.
I can recall Pauline Frederick was the U.N. correspondent for NBC Radio. Barbara Walters was at the "Today" show transitioning from being one kind of host to finally fighting her way to get, you know, past the male anchors who were stopping her from asking news questions. And so there were very few women. And fortunately when I got to Washington, you know, there was Lesley Stahl and, you know, Cokie Roberts, whom we just lost, and my great friend Judy Woodruff, who made so many things possible for me by having gotten to the NBC News bureau first before I did and then being so welcoming. And then we worked together on the White House beat and did so many other things in the years since.
GROSS: My guest is Andrea Mitchell, NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports." We'll talk more after a break. And John Powers will review Attica Locke's new novel about an African American Texas Ranger searching for the vanished child of a white supremacist. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Andrea Mitchell. She'll receive an Emmy for lifetime achievement next Tuesday at the News & Documentary Emmy ceremony. She is NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports." Over the years, she's covered Congress, the White House, presidential campaigns, the State Department. Mitchell has also been a trailblazer for women journalists.
What were some of the preconceptions you had to fight about women?
MITCHELL: The preconceptions initially were that women could just not do hard news, that they had to do women's social news, you know, fashion, food, family. And it was defined very rigorously that women couldn't cover politics. Women couldn't cover, you know, the military. And better women than I who preceded me started breaking down those doors. And, certainly, by the time I got to NBC 41 years ago, there was a woman White House correspondent but very few others. And so it was really still a challenge. I did consider myself a feminist because there were so many barriers. I had a very strong mother and older sister and father who kept telling his daughters we could do anything we wanted to do and encouraged us in every adventure.
GROSS: You've referred to the conflict you've felt about wanting to be nice and wanting to be liked and, on the other hand, asking really tough questions and knowing that that's not going to endear you to (laughter) the person you're asking, that you're going to get a lot of grief for that.
MITCHELL: I do want to be liked. But when it comes to asking a tough question, I think I don't hesitate. That instinct takes over or determination takes over, that you never forget that your role is as a reporter first.
GROSS: Is that what you told your mother when she criticized you for being rude?
MITCHELL: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: (Laughter) Shouting questions at presidents.
MITCHELL: Well, she really didn't like that I shouted questions at Ronald Reagan because he would be going to the helicopter or coming back from Camp David from the helicopter, and that was the only chance we had when we went months without a press conference. And so, yes, we shouted questions. And sometimes, he would stop. Often, he would pretend that he couldn't hear. Sometimes, he couldn't hear. But often, he would just point to his ears and point to his watch and signal that he couldn't hear. But I recall that my very first press conference with Reagan in 1981, I had come only a few months into the - into his administration right after the assassination attempt. I started filling in more and with Judy Woodruff and the late John Palmer, who were our White House correspondents. And I got to a news conference, and I prepared a question.
But I was, you know, cautioned not to expect much because I was going to be sitting way in the back of the East Room, under the cameras in the last row. And he called on me. And I later learned from his staff that he's actually said when he looked at the picture book and he had not memorized the names of the correspondents - none of them, except maybe a few of the front-row folks. He kept looking. He said, no, I want to call on that nice woman who keeps shouting questions at me. No, no. And then they showed her my - they showed him my picture, and he said, that's the one I want to call on. And they said, no, you don't, because they already knew me. But he did. He - so he called on me at that very first news conference. And thank goodness I had a question ready.
GROSS: You're known for your tough questions. And you say you learned everything you know about questioning artful dodgers from questioning President Reagan. I want you to explain that.
MITCHELL: He was so adept with a quip, some ad lib joke at evading a question. And he - you know, he was just very experienced from his years as an actor and his years at G.E. Theater at speaking and communicating publicly. And so for reporters, it was always a, you know, somewhat combative attempt to pin him down. And he was very hard to pin down.
GROSS: The staff was very nervous - his staff was very nervous about his age. And you write about an incident in July of 1982. Early in the history of the space shuttles, the White House was planning a big, patriotic arrival ceremony at Edwards Air Force Base for the landing of one of the space shuttles. And you learned that the space shuttle was going to make one extra orbit around the Earth to kind of stall for time so that Reagan could get an extra hour of sleep. How did you find that out? And how did you report it?
MITCHELL: I found that out from sources who knew very well what the original schedule was and how it had been adapted by the White House advance people. And when I reported it July 4 weekend, on NBC Nightly News, it infuriated the Reagan staff. And I was in the doghouse. I was sent to Coventry for quite some time - for years, in fact, from some of them - because it was such a sensitive issue of him getting enough sleep. As I recall, we got up in France, where the summit had been - this would have been in the spring, early summer of 1982 - and flew to Rome, where he fell asleep with the pope, and then went on to England, where he had a state dinner at Windsor Castle with the queen. And he was obviously exhausted and over-scheduled. And in the middle of all this, during that very - the early hours of the morning before he'd even left France, Israel had invaded Lebanon. So there was a foreign policy crisis on top of everything else. So when we got to that moment, we were in California. He was in Santa Barbara and flew to Edwards Air Force Base. There was a tremendous premium by the first lady placed on his getting enough sleep. And I think that is the backstory that made this so sensitive.
GROSS: Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News and anchor of "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on MSNBC. Next week, she's going to get a lifetime achievement Emmy at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Mitchell. And she's NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent. And she anchors "Andrea Mitchell Reports" at noon, Eastern time, on MSNBC. Next week, she'll be getting a lifetime achievement Emmy at the News and Documentary Emmy Awards.
What do you consider to be your biggest showdown with a president?
MITCHELL: I think the biggest showdown I had was actually with the chief of staff Don Regan over Iran-Contra when I asked a question of the president at a news conference...
GROSS: This was Reagan, yeah?
MITCHELL: ...Which - this was Reagan. And it was 1987, and I asked a question about the revelation that Israel had helped with money for the Iran-Contra operation illegally. And he answered incorrectly. And they had to put out a correction 20 minutes later, while we were still in primetime coverage. So right before 9 o'clock - the news conference ended at 8:35. They issued a written statement. The president misspoke. He corrected himself. I ran it out to the lawn to get it to my colleague Chris Wallace, who was on the air with Tom Brokaw, and, you know, got down below the camera angle, handed the statement to him so he could get it on right before 9 o'clock, ran back to the small cubicle in the back of the White House briefing room that we had - that each of the networks have. And the phone was ringing, and it was Don Regan, the chief of staff, cursing me out for asking the question, saying he was going to get me fired. It reminded me of Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia who bullied me so much. And I was really scared.
And there have been other instances. I asked a question at a news conference of Bill Clinton about whether he was going to live up to his commitment to permit gays in the military. He had just taken office. And he stared me down, and it set off a huge storm, which led to "don't ask, don't tell." So asking tough questions - you know, that's what we do. They get mad. We have to do our jobs. They don't like being pressed when there are scandals. And as long as you're respectful and have your facts right, you push ahead.
GROSS: How would you compare the kind of anger when Don Regan tried to shut you down to, for example, when President Trump tries to take away White House credentials of a broadcaster or calls journalists the enemy of the people?
MITCHELL: I think it's much more profound now. There are - I'm sure have been lots of threats - private threats - in the past, anger at reporters individually. But for the president of the United States to call the news media the enemy of the people is to tell his supporters to tell the world that that is his view of the Fourth Estate - is to diminish respect and credibility - respect for the media and the credibility of the media.
The result of this campaign, which is now very targeted during the reelection campaign, is to make people not believe us when we fact-check him. And he has to know that a lot of what we are reporting contradicts him. And he just this week said that he never said that he would meet with the Iranians with no preconditions. He said it on camera and on Twitter a week ago, and so did his secretary of state. And now...
GROSS: And it's being shown all the time on television now. It's like he forgets that he said it in front of a camera and there's a record of what he said.
MITCHELL: And it's astounding. But he has a bigger megaphone. And when he says fake news, now you hear dictators around the world speaking about fake news. It's a term - and enemy of the people is a term that goes back to Joseph Stalin, if not earlier. So...
GROSS: Do you feel like your boundaries are shifted a little bit in terms of, like, subjective things that you could say about this president because the norms have been shattered, because he's shattered so many norms, because so many people are so concerned about the direction he's taking the country in and about, you know, even about war - that we might, you know, inadvertently, accidentally get into or intentionally get into, perhaps through a tweet? I mean, has that changed your confidence or your ability to give, like, opinion or to share a concern?
MITCHELL: It has changed my ability, and I'm not comfortable with it. I was raised in journalism where you would deliver the facts, provide the context, rely on your knowledge to say that this is likely to happen or that is likely to happen and this is true or not true. But you didn't feel that every day you had to be, of necessity, correcting the president of the United States or the press secretary for false statements. And it's not a position that I welcome at all.
I think his use of Twitter and his accusations and the personal attacks have required us to be much stronger in fact-checking and correcting the record. And it is not healthy, I don't think, for us to be in this adversarial situation. It's appropriate for us to challenge and provide context, but I don't enjoy this at all, but I think it's an obligation. I think we owe it to our readers and viewers and listeners to point out what is true and what is not.
GROSS: You're married to Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the Federal Reserve. And you were a couple before he was named chair by President Reagan. I know that you thought through, like, what were the conflict of interest issues that you would have to face when he took that position. Can you share with us how you've handled that over the years? I mean, he's retired now from - you know, he's no longer chair of the Fed. But he was - what? - for eight years chair.
MITCHELL: For longer than that...
GROSS: Longer than that.
MITCHELL: ...For 19 - almost 20 years.
GROSS: Was it that long? Oh, OK.
MITCHELL: It was a long time. And we knew each other and were dating. And then he gets this appointment and immediately, of course, went to my bureau chief and said, we have to figure out the rules of the road and put up the firewalls. And I stopped covering anything in the economic arena. And we managed to avoid conflicts, made easier, in part, because what he did was classified, so it would have been impossible for him to share anything. And I really didn't know other than moments of tension or crisis. I knew he was on the phone a lot or whatever was - unscheduled meetings or vacations that were canceled. But it - you know, it could get a little complicated.
There was one instance when I was covering the Clinton White House. And I, as a former energy correspondent, which I did before I started covering Reagan - I was the energy correspondent for NBC, and there was an oil crisis. And they were thinking of drawing down on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which, of course, is what is now in play again. And I was going to write that story and pitched it to "Nightly News" because I knew that they were considering it. And I got a call from the treasury secretary, who said, Andrea, you can't do this story because I had checked with treasury as well to see whether they would - about to do it. And Larry Summers called and said, you can't do this story. And I said, why not? He said, because Alan is involved. And I had no idea that he would have been involved in that, but they had consulted him on the economic impacts of it. So I had - you know, I called the bureau chief and said, this has to be assigned elsewhere. I can't do it. So, I mean, you would run into something like that, but that was a rare occurrence.
GROSS: You're, I think, 5'3". I'm shorter than that. I know there is at least once when you had to stand on a box for your report in order to be seen by the camera with the right shot. Have there been more instances of that where you had to, like, stand on a box?
MITCHELL: There've been so many instances. I've stood on boxes all over the world. You do what you have to do. I've stood on ladders. I've stood on tables. I've stood on boxes. But the advantage of being short - because there is an advantage - is that if you're trying to be seen and shout a question at a president of the United States, you can crawl under the tripods of the camera crews, pop up on the other side on the frontline and not get in the way of the camera.
GROSS: How often have you done that?
MITCHELL: All the time.
GROSS: So a lot of people are used to you crawling around the floor or used to be used to you doing that?
MITCHELL: Yeah. It's one of the things that is less than dignified. But if you've got - in the old days with Sam Donaldson and Bill Plante, these, you know, tall guys shouting questions behind the cameras, if you're 5'3" or less, you do what you have to do.
GROSS: Did you have to learn how to have a really big voice?
MITCHELL: I don't think I had to learn that.
MITCHELL: I recall that one of the chapters in my book is called Designated Shouter, and that was my job for many years at the Reagan White House was shouting and trying to be heard over a helicopter.
GROSS: Well, it's one more thing. That's how a lot of - that's the way Trump talks to reporters now is with the helicopter in the background. And the sound of that helicopter noise often drowns out the reporters asking the questions.
MITCHELL: Exactly. And it would be - you know, sometimes, it's close to 100 degrees, and they've been out there for an hour waiting for him. And then there'll be an hour where he'll talk. And, obviously, it's harder to ask a question and a smart follow-up question and get a good answer when you're shouting over a helicopter and standing outside instead of being seated in the briefing room or in the East Room of the White House at a formal news conference, which is the way it used to be done.
GROSS: Andrea Mitchell, thank you for this interview. Thank you for your reporting, and congratulations on the Emmy you will be receiving next week.
MITCHELL: Terry Gross, it's such an honor to be with you. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Andrew Mitchell is NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor of MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports." On Tuesday, she'll receive an Emmy for lifetime achievement at the News & Documentary Emmy ceremony. After we take a short break, John Powers will review Attica Locke's new novel about an African American Texas ranger searching for the vanished child of a white supremacist. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "DOODLIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.