Jeremy Liebman/Art Department

Badass Woman spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. 

Faye Penn
Jun 26, 2018 @ 8:00 am

A few minutes past 1 p.m., Andrea Mitchell enters an NBC green room fresh off a show that spanned the Iran nuclear deal, the royal newlyweds, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and the will-they-won’t-they meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before cutting away to a White House press conference.

“We covered a lot, didn’t we?” Mitchell says, as though it’s the third or fourth time she’s done this and not the umpteen thousandth. Immediately, you detect a trait possessed by all great journalists: hunger.

What you may not have witnessed is her singular endurance. Mitchell, who’s about to celebrate 40 years at NBC, remains one of Washington’s most dogged reporters, literally outrunning—and scooping—colleagues, many of whom are decades her junior. At 71, she has covered seven presidents, the nuclear arms race, and such events as the Jonestown massacre and the Three Mile Island accident, and she’s as busy as ever now as the chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News and the host of MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports.

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“She’s like the LeBron James of foreign correspondents,” says NBC News political director and Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd. “It’s the same awe that I have watching him play after all these years. Why are you still this good? Aren’t you tired?”

Mitchell doesn’t look it when she turns up in her slim sleeveless dress in “lucky” red, so designated when she began wearing the color in the 1980s to get President Ronald Reagan’s attention at press conferences. Today the label is Akris, but Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Valentino, Chanel, and Loro Piana are also in rotation. Beige suede mid-heel Louboutins say she cares equally about style and agility, while off-camera she wears Brunello Cucinelli sneakers for speed.

Sometimes her alacrity surprises people. During the 2016 presidential race, Mitchell was covering Hillary Clinton and was up against a press corps of mainly 20- and 30-somethings. After campaign speeches Mitchell “would beeline to the rope line and somehow get to the front every time to wait for Secretary Clinton and get her questions in,” recalls Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News. “She brought a cub reporter’s approach to her job. It’s not just me saying it—all the other reporters from CBS, ABC, and CNN would say, ‘How does she do this?’ It was a real lesson that you can never become complacent.”

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Apparently you can’t sleep either. The day of our interview, Mitchell had logged fewer than four hours of sleep (her Fitbit read 3:51, to be exact). Her day typically starts at 5 a.m. to do the morning shows, then it’s prepping for her own at noon and, on some evenings, NBC Nightly News. In between are source breakfasts (she does her own reporting), editor meetings, writing for NBCNews.com, producer calls, and State Department briefings. She’s fueled by bananas, peanut M&Ms, lactose-free yogurt, and around 16 espressos a day. (“Sometimes I live dangerously and have a cinnamon-raisin bagel,” Mitchell says.) When she doesn’t have to do the Today show, she lifts weights with a trainer.

“Not many people my age are still doing what I do,” she says. “But this is the most challenging time for journalists right now. I think we’re in a renaissance of hard-news reporting, and I want to see this through.”

She’s referring, of course, to the Trump White House, which she deems “much more difficult” to cover than the previous six administrations. “Facts don’t seem to matter,” she says. “We see it all the time, and it is really, profoundly disturbing. If you get three sources, that should be enough. But if they’re all lying, then you’ve got a real problem. So how do you find out what the policy is?”

For his part, Trump has called Mitchell “Hillary Clinton’s PR person,” a claim Mitchell brushes off. “Did he?” she says, laughing. “Just ask the Clinton people—they thought I was a royal pain in the ass. They could not stand me.”

Mitchell is used to getting flak from all sides. Earlier this year she rankled some liberals for tweeting a call for an apology after comedian Michelle Wolf had joked at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.” Mitchell thought the roast was out of line. “People can be criticized and ridiculed for their policies or opinions,” she says, “but I thought it was a much too personal, cruel attempt to diminish her personally.” (Did Sanders appreciate the defense? “I haven’t seen her or talked to her since,” Mitchell says.)

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Recently, Mitchell signed a letter in support of veteran anchor Tom Brokaw when two women accused him of unwanted advances in the 1990s. Rachel Maddow, Mika Brzezinski, Maria Shriver, and more than 100 other colleagues signed as well. While NBC’s newsroom culture came under scrutiny last year after Today co-host Matt Lauer was fired for what the network called “inappropriate sexual behavior,” Mitchell says she didn’t encounter harassment firsthand. “My experience, maybe because I’m older and maybe because I have sort of a veteran status, has been different, and I wasn’t aware of a lot that has been acknowledged. I don’t know the extent.” She adds: “I think people are working very, very hard on it now.”

Mitchell says she also has a #MeToo story but hasn’t spoken about it publicly. “I think all of us in that era did, and we dealt with it in different ways,” she says. “There were very few avenues to address problems like that.”

Mitchell’s success is impressive by any measure, all the more so when you consider what women were up against when she was starting out in the 1960s. How did she do it? She credits her highly cultured, though modest, childhood as well as her generally outspoken nature. Mitchell’s mother frequently shuttled her three children to museums and music lessons. At school Mitchell would get into trouble for talking back and telling jokes. But her “fresh mouth” would become the cornerstone of her career, starting with her job at Philadelphia’s KYW radio and KYW-TV. It was there that she learned the secret to standing her ground with anyone, no matter how intimidating: “When you’re dealing with a bully, you have to just make sure you know your facts,” she says.

Some 32 years later, Mitchell still relishes the time she gave it to Donald Regan, Reagan’s flamboyantly sexist chief of staff, on air. Regan once told The Washington Post that women didn’t care about nuclear weapons because “they’re not … going to understand throw weights or what is happening in Afghanistan or what is happening in human rights.”

It was an outrageous thing to say even by 1980s standards. So a few months later, Mitchell was interviewing Regan on Today when she leaned in and asked, “Mr. Regan, what is throw weight?” (It’s the weight of the payload a missile can carry.) “He just sat there for the longest time,” Mitchell recalls. “He had no idea what he was talking about. It was just one of those satisfying moments.”

Even with a roster of big gets, from Fidel Castro to Vice President Mike Pence, Mitchell doesn’t always win. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never gave her an interview, though not for a lack of effort on her part. When he opted to travel without a press pool, she decided to follow him around the world on commercial flights. “I was trying to keep up with him for months, hoping to get an interview, but you can’t keep up with a military plane,” Mitchell says ruefully.

With Tillerson, more was at stake than just a scoop. “There’s a larger issue here,” she says, “which is that the Secretary of State is supposed to stand for a free press. All of his predecessors going back to Henry Kissinger took the press to show the rest of the world that a free press is an American value. It’s in our Constitution. It’s the First Amendment.”

At the top of her current interview wish list are Kim Jong-un, Pope Francis, and Queen Elizabeth II. (Mitchell tweeted like a fangirl when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got married. “I looove the wedding,” she says. “I just can’t get enough of it.”)

In 1997 Mitchell got married too, to esteemed economist Alan Greenspan, then chair of the Federal Reserve. When he served in that role, conversations about work could be treacherous, so she says they avoided political pillow talk altogether.

“Everything that he did at work was classified, so I never knew his work stuff, but we still had to manage appearances of conflicts of interest,” Mitchell recalls. “I stopped covering anything that was closely related.”

Greenspan is currently finishing up a book on the history of capitalism in America. “He’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him at work,” says Mitchell of her husband, who’s 92. When she talks about him, she offers a rare glimpse of an existence beyond press briefings, but it’s hard to grasp how her downtime pursuits—reading and tennis—fit in. “This past weekend, she came over for coffee and to see our grandson, and she gave me a lift to pick up my car,” says her good friend Judy Woodruff, the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. “We hang out together, but I know that every other minute she’s working. It’s who she is and what she does.”

Mitchell just doesn’t seem cut out for lounge chairs, so don’t even ask. “When I’m not doing it well, or if I think I’ve outlived my usefulness, I’ll be the first person to say it’s time.”

For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, on newsstands and for digital download July 6.

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