Nancy Grace is our friend.
We feel like we know her when she squints into the camera and looks close to tears, imploring us to help her find yet one more in an endless string of beautiful, missing girls. ("Could. The girl. Be. Alive?" she'll say, with characteristic drama.) Or when she berates a defense attorney for having the gall to suggest that somebody she finds awfully suspicious might be innocent of a crime.
"Good night, friend," she says at the end of every "Nancy Grace" show, her breathy voice like warm milk. We sleep better knowing Grace is on our side.
"I'm on a search for the truth," she says during a recent visit to the District to promote her new book, "Objection!," in which the former prosecutor calls defense attorneys "dangerous" and compares them to pigs. The way Grace sees it, prosecutors want to do what's right, whereas defense attorneys are unethical and just want to win. She'd never cross over to what she calls the "dark side" because "I don't really want to have any part of getting guilty people off."
Media critics have suggested that Grace, who anchors daily shows on CNN Headline News ("Nancy Grace") and Court TV ("Nancy Grace: Closing Arguments"), believes all suspects are guilty until proven innocent, but Grace says that's ridiculous. She's passionate about putting guilty people in jail, and it just so happens she doesn't need juries to tell her who those guilty people are.
The fans love her. They say Grace speaks her mind and seems really to care. At a book reading at Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, she tells the audience how "disgusted" she was when a jury acquitted Michael Jackson of sexual molestation charges earlier this month, and the audience of 250, dominated by middle-aged women, claps and cheers.
They ask questions: "Are you by any chance an Aries?"
And this, from an old woman, about Grace's guests: "I love it when they don't know what they're talking about and you go, 'What-ever.' "
They file into a long line for autographs and pictures. Grace crinkles her nose with pleasure and says, "Bless you" and "Oh, my stars!" and labels her fans "sweetie pie" and "pretty lady."
"My uncle's a defense attorney," says Madeline McCabe, 11. "I don't know what to do with him."
Grace calls her the "cutest thing."
Grace's disappointment with the Jackson acquittal goes beyond her belief that the pop star is guilty. Though she didn't actually sit in on the trial, she is convinced that the prosecution proved its case. That's why she blames the jurors for deciding the case wrong.
"I guess I was naive, thinking justice would remain blind," she says on-air, on the day of the verdict. She scolds the jury foreman, Paul Rodriguez.
"You got a grown man sleeping with little boys," she says. "Hell-oooooo!"
"Yes, but -- ," Rodriguez says.
"How do you explain this guy's sleeping with a 13-year-old boy 365 nights in their underwear?" she asks.
Rodriguez tries to explain the notion of "reasonable doubt," but Grace dismisses this.
Grace, 44, was a prosecutor for 10 years in Atlanta before moving to Court TV in 1997. Television seems to be her perfect medium. For one thing, it allows her to interrupt guests as much as she likes. For another, she gets to emote in close-up. Under that nostalgic cotton-candy froth of hair, her face is a fabulous mosaic of glares, sneers and pained squints. When expressing righteous indignation, which is a great deal of the time, Grace does her imperious queen face, flaring her nostrils or shouting, pausing between each word for emphasis. She did this a lot during the Jackson trial, saying things like, "WEARING. HIS. PAJAMAS!"
Grace's fiance was murdered in a botched robbery in 1980. In her book, she explains how that caused her to change her mind about being a schoolteacher, and to become a prosecutor of violent crime instead. These days, she tends to see the world in terms of black and white, good and evil, victims and villains. Her show on Headline News is reminiscent of the populist, do-it-yourself crime-solving of "America's Most Wanted." Viewers are urged to be careful, to be on the lookout, to call law enforcement with tips. The show also has its own "injustice" hotline. Once in a while, Grace has fun with a subject like the "incredible stories" of psychic detectives.
Crusading on behalf of vanished innocents -- the Chandra Levys, Jennifer Wilbankses and Laci Petersons -- Grace conjures a world in which dark forces lurk behind every corner, and young women are constantly in danger of being snatched or slain.
"A dangerous alert tonight, for all of you planning a summer vacation," she announced during her first show about Natalee Holloway, the 18-year-old from Alabama who disappeared in Aruba. Night after night in recent weeks, Grace has revisited Holloway's disappearance, quizzing the CNN reporter in Aruba for the slightest incremental advances in the story. ("Bring us up-to-date, friend.") Producers display photos of the blond girl while Grace says again and again that Holloway "looks like a beauty queen." She peers deep into the camera and says soulfully, "Natalee. Where. Are. You?" Then Grace shakes her head sadly.
Since "Nancy Grace" debuted in February, it has averaged half a million viewers. That's great for Headline News, which last year was averaging less than half that during its 8 p.m. time slot. (Over on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly still eclipses Grace with well over 2 million viewers.) Meanwhile, "Objection!" debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Occasionally, the many friends of Nancy Grace get a glimpse of how tightly wound she is. One day, during a discussion about Jackson, a psychotherapist guest mildly remarks that "it is possible for children to falsely accuse adults of sexual abuse."
"What are you doing here?" Grace asks her, her face stony with betrayal. "Why did you say that?"
Vitriol is safe, it seems, so long as Grace dispenses it or agrees with it. She doesn't object when -- during an on-air discussion about Wilbanks, who's set to make money off her experiences as the runaway bride -- one guest speculates that Wilbanks might be a sociopath, and another labels Wilbanks a "despicable, pathetic, lousy excuse for a human being."
In an interview at CNN offices in Washington, Grace at first drips with southern charm. She's just had her makeup done -- her hair is poufed, her eyes are bright. She offers a two-handed shake and chats amiably about her book and her cowboy boots. She twice good-naturedly exclaims, "Oh, good Lord!" A producer brings her a Diet Coke.
"Just let me know if they find Natalee Holloway," she tells him.
But she appears to grow impatient for no reason -- when asked, for example, about fan mail, or about her late fiance, whom she often mentions on television and in public appearances. When this happens, she turns curt and even sarcastic, answering in short sentences or single syllables. She is asked if she feels her TV shows allow her to present the nuances of legal cases.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she says coldly. Then: "I think the truth is black-and-white."
She declares she has to go back into makeup. "I'm over," she says, and stands up.
Minutes later, you pass by a room with a big mirror and catch a glimpse of Nancy Grace, holding what appears to be a curling iron over her fluffy blond hair.
Good night, friend.