My Mother the Careerist

By Elsa Walsh,
a staff writer for the New Yorker
Wednesday, October 18, 2006


My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News' First Woman Star

By John Dickerson

Simon & Schuster. 335 pp. $24.95

John Dickerson, former White House correspondent for Time magazine, has uncovered Washington's own Mommie Dearest. Though few under 50 will recognize her name, Nancy Dickerson was the Barbara Walters of her day, the first to interview John F. Kennedy after his inauguration and a favorite of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Her son doesn't expose physical abuse of the type shown in the sensational movie version of Joan Crawford's life. But to him what he uncovers in "On Her Trail" is almost as bad: the daily water torture of having a career mother who engaged in drive-by parenting, mothering on her own terms and not her children's. Though the era in Washington during which a reporter like his mother could be chummy with presidents is long gone, Dickerson's depiction of the searing psychological neglect a child can feel when a parent appears to love a job more makes this book riveting in a horror movie kind of way-- you feel you should not be reading it but you cannot turn your eyes away -- and painfully relevant to those of us who find it ever harder to free ourselves from the 24/7 work ethos.

"By the time I was thirteen, I wasn't confused anymore. I was angry. I hated her: I thought she was a phony and a liar. Everyone still thought she was a big deal, but I thought she distinguished herself at home by being petty, rigid and clumsy," he writes.

Dickerson, now a writer for Slate, decided to turn his investigative skills on his mother shortly after more than 20 boxes of her personal papers were delivered to his office following her death at 70 in 1997. Love letters, divorce records, broadcast tapes, all were stashed in the boxes. "It was embarrassing how little I knew about this woman we'd just buried," he writes. The young person he found in those papers, an authentic-sounding woman, seemed so different from the publicity-obsessed mother he thought he knew. What, he wondered, had caused her to change, to leave behind the spirited woman of her earlier private papers?

Dickerson devotes significant space to his mother's career, describing how the young and popular Nancy moved from her girlhood days in Wauwatosa, Wis., to Washington Girl Friday, and the obstacles she overcame to become the first female news correspondent at CBS and "the No. 1 Great Society Hostess," as The Washington Post described her in 1967, at her storied 35-room home in McLean. Dickerson recounts wonderful political snippets that make a reporter yearn for another time, such as the middle-of-the-night rambling phone call from Richard Nixon thanking Nancy for asking a tough question at a news conference and insisting he understood the Vietnam War protesters. "I love those kids," he told her. (After he hung up, she said to her husband, "He hasn't been drinking but I'd feel better if he had been.")

The childhood dramas, however, are the driving force of this book, whether intentional or not. Dickerson cautions that he's not trying to weigh in on working mothers; he provides enough examples to suggest that, job or no job, his mother may not have had the DNA to be a nurturing parent. When her stepdaughter asked if she could have a silver dish that had belonged to her dead mother, Nancy hid it. To her older son, Michael, who was struggling with acne, she'd often say, "Your face looks awful."

But even with her tendency to do or say exactly the wrong thing to a child, it was the habit of fitting her children into her career rather than molding it around them that seems to have made her son feel most unloved. After his parents divorced and John moved in with his father, his mother wrote a letter claiming that she had needed to work for financial reasons when her children were young. She loved him and his brother, she wrote, "more than anyone in the world." Dickerson scoffs at her reasoning. "She had to make money to be sure, but she worked because she loved to. That's why it was natural for her to write that she loved us more than 'anyone' in the world, but not 'anything.' She would have worked just as hard at her job had she been wading in bullion."

By the time the young Dickerson was in his early years of school, Vietnam and Watergate had shifted journalism forever. His mother's career with the networks was over, her usefulness diminished seriously by her closeness to those in power. But she was still on television and working assiduously to jump-start her fading career, in part by giving fabulous parties. One of her last great ones was for Ronald Reagan, three days before his first inauguration. Her children regularly worked the front door at those parties, greeting the famous guests. "We felt like we were being used," writes Dickerson. "Nancy could have a fantastic career and pleasant children too! Other people took care of us, so we became plug-and-play kids, ready to be displayed at the appropriate moments."

The real lesson -- and surprise -- in the book comes from Dickerson's assertion that his mother did not physically neglect them. In fact, he says, she dropped everything for emergencies and doctor visits, and consulted with teachers and experts when performance problems arose. When he was lagging behind in his reading, she dragged him to Children's Hospital for a battery of tests and later had him write a paragraph every afternoon before going out to play because, as she told him, Hemingway's mother had done the same thing.

"But there's a difference between working to solve a child's problems and connecting with that child," explains Dickerson. "She did all the right things from the outside but none of it brought us closer together on the inside." Instead, he writes, all the extra doctor and teacher visits made him feel "broken." What was missing were the kinds of moments Dickerson says he has with his own children, when a parent conveys through his availability that what's important to the child is important to him. "Mom's schedule never had a window large enough for such natural moments. It didn't have that window because she didn't schedule them," he writes. "She didn't know about the rest of her children's lives because it was like a dog's whistle to her. She couldn't hear it. If we weren't on her list or it wasn't the approved together-time between when she came home and when the servants took us for our baths, she wasn't hungering to connect with our world."

Dickerson claims to have had a reconciliation of sorts with his mother before she died. He came to understand that her shortcomings were born out of an extreme insecurity. "Her performances became stilted and she tarted up her past to remind people who she was. When you're defined by being around the powerful and famous you can lose any sense of who you are." He could be awful to her, too. "I wish I could apologize to Mom," he writes. "I wish I'd given her a break." His mother, he says, would have appreciated his desire to tell her story his way. Somehow, however, it seems that some score-settling was going on here, that traces remained of that 13-year-old who sat transfixed watching "Mommie Dearest" and then giddily discussed it with his older brother, who had watched it on the other side of the country.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company