Forty years ago, Elizabeth Drew’s first big assignment in her new job at the New Yorker was to keep a journal of life in Washington as Richard Nixon’s White House was unraveling. Just after Labor Day in 1973, she told her editor, William Shawn, about her “seemingly outlandish” hunch that both Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, would be replaced within the year, and Shawn urged her on. Her mentor, John W. Gardner, advised her to “write it so that forty years from now people can say, ‘So that’s what it was like.’ ”
In a blurb for “Washington Journal,’’ the book that grew out of that effort, Joan Didion called her observations “so coolly absorbing as to render the year almost reasonable.” Almost. In Drew’s second entry, on Sept. 5, 1973, she describes a White House press conference at which Nixon’s “demeanor changed when he dealt with the questions about Watergate. . . . He became tense, and he breathed hard. If one stood far enough to his right, one could see that, behind the lectern, his hips swiveled in a circular motion, as if within an invisible Hula Hoop.” On Oct. 21, she noted that Washingtonians were so keyed up over the constitutional crisis that “a friend of mine went out to her front lawn to collect the newspaper this morning and, not seeing it, said to herself, ‘They’ve stopped the presses.’ ’’
Her evocative, day-by-day record of Nixon jacking up the White House electric bills by keeping fires going all summer, and of the whole town keeping the radio on at all hours “as if war had broken out,” is being reissued on Thursday, with a new afterword that tells how Nixon clawed his way back to respectability in his final years and would have loved his funeral. “A man is not finished when he is defeated,’’ he once said. “He is finished when he quits.’’
Nixon never did quit, and Drew, whose 14 subsequent books include one of the earliest looks at money in modern American politics, never has, either. She spent years as what one friend in journalism calls “the queen of Washington,’’ but has also, in the decades since her first book’s initial release, survived a brain tumor, buried a second husband, and been fired from the New Yorker, where she was written off as “over the hill” when Tina Brown, as The Post reported at the time, “retired” her at age 56.
At 78 — “I’m not embarrassed about it; it’s just odd,” she says of her age — she’s never stopped writing, and she remains a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. Yet as her Watergate book is coming out again, she’s added a new chapter, too, as a Twitter maven, Rolling Stone contributor, and recent discovery of a new generation of journalists, including her friends Molly Ball of the Atlantic, Ezra Klein of Vox.com and Annie Lowrey of the New York Times, who are among those co-hosting a book party for her on Thursday.
“She’s become a sort of mentor to me,’’ says Ball, who first met her through Twitter and found her “just fun to hang out with. I got to know her first and then read her books, but they’re a revelation and the Watergate one, like nothing else I’ve ever read about that period, really shows what it was like to be there.” But Drew is also fully present in this moment, Ball says. “She always wants to know who the new people are and what the gossip is.”
When Elizabeth Brenner, graduate of Wellesley College and night secretarial school, hit town in 1959, her first journalism job was with Congressional Quarterly, where she “learned to read a bill,’’ covered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and even went home with a signing pen. According to Tom Wicker, writing in the New York Times of July 3, 1964, after President Lyndon Baines Johnson handed out pens to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Hubert Humphrey and others who had pushed for the historic bill’s passage, “Johnson looked up and saw Elizabeth Brenner, a reporter for The Congressional Quarterly, standing by the table. ‘You want one?’ he asked. Miss Brenner did, and got one.”
Over tea and raisin toast in an interview at her home in Georgetown, Drew said it wasn’t easy to locate the next rung on the professional ladder, and several outlets told her outright, “We don’t hire women.”
“But we took it; we didn’t know there was an alternative,” Drew said. When her friend Gloria Steinem first started talking about starting a movement, “it took me awhile to get it.”
Though she still sometimes refers to herself as “little Lizzy Brenner from Cincinnati,” Drew went on to become the Washington correspondent for the Atlantic and then the New Yorker and for a time had her own PBS show, for which she interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir — “She was not a pleasant lady’’ — Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, “who asked me if her sari and her makeup were all right,’’ and King Abdullah, who “asked me to go to Aqaba with him that weekend, but he asked everybody that. I could’ve been the first Jewish queen of Jordan!” she jokes.
Looking back on all that has and has not changed here over the decades, she does feel Washington used to be a “nicer place,’’ where people weren’t necessarily less busy but didn’t talk about it all the time. They made more time for one another, and maybe even sent over a roast chicken when a friend wasn’t feeling well. And now that office-holders are so busy raising money every day of every year, well, they in particular don’t get to have lives outside work any more.
When asked about her eventual ouster from the New Yorker, she says that’s only part of the picture: “I’ve been fired three times” — four if you count the time she felt she was run off from PBS after being told, “There’s a problem with women on the air” and assigned a “new boss whose job was to drive me crazy.”
Now, though, 22 years after she was “retired,’’ her takeaway is that “I may have had my setbacks, but I’ve also had a lot of luck.”
While her adoption by a new generation is fun for them and for her, she not only isn’t looking for validation but feels her confidence is stronger now than when she was younger, mostly as a function of having kept on learning, practicing her craft, upholding her standards and respecting her readers, no matter what anyone else did. “I’ve done pieces in the past year or so I couldn’t have done, say, 10 years ago.”
The president about whom she’s written so much, on the other hand, did look to journalists who hadn’t known him in the White House to rehabilitate his image — and some were happy to oblige. An admiring 1978 piece from the L.A. Times/Washington Post News Service, for instance, said, “Nixon makes it clear that debate is his meat, and taking a stand his strong drink.”
Well, in “Washington Journal,’’ Drew chronicles the extent to which strong drink was his strong drink; he drank so heavily in the lead-up to the invasion of Cambodia that his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who sometimes referred to him as “our drunken friend,” told a member of his staff that “our peerless leader has flipped out.”
In Drew’s view, Nixon’s resentments first fueled his rise and then left him unable to get out of his own way, but they even gave us one last “new Nixon” at his nationally televised funeral: “He would have seen right through Kissinger getting all choked up, or Bob Dole with the tear coming down, but he would have been pleased as punch they all showed up.”
None of the current so-called scandals, as she sees them, can compare to Watergate, which was “without precedent or successor.” But she isn’t so sure we’ve learned anything in the years since that would keep another “totally out-of-control” president from trying to illegally undermine the adversaries that Nixon always made the mistake of seeing as enemies.
Some of her current work corrects the history she’s lived through — no, Buckley v. Valeo did not say money equals speech, and no, LBJ did not almost single-handedly get us a civil rights bill as portrayed in the Broadway play “All the Way,’’ with Bryan Cranston.
But she’s still taking on new subjects, too. And like the most interesting man she ever covered, she isn’t thinking of stopping: “I’ve never felt, ‘Oh, I’m done,’ though there have been a few times I’ve wondered what I would do next.”