When veteran political scribe Elizabeth Drew collected the Washington Press Club Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in March, she did not lavish treacly bromides upon the crowd. That was never going to happen. Drew was upset at how women have been treated in her business — at how she has been treated, especially in recent years. “And I’m going to name names tonight. Why not?”she shrugged before the nearly 700 journalists and politicians assembled to hear her speak.
She did name names. And sometimes she didn’t, but it was easy to connect the dots. While there have been great advances in the industry, “things are still not ideal for women in journalism,” she said. “There are still problems of equal pay and maternity leave, paternity leave. And these issues need to be perfected, but they’ve been recognized, and they’re being worked on.”
She was not done, though, not by a long shot. “But something else is going on, and I don’t think it’s been recognized, but I sure have been seeing it,” she cautioned. “It’s what I call ‘atmospheric discrimination.’ ” There, she had named it. “Men who treat us with condescension, unkindness, rudeness,” she said. Slight her at your peril.
Her speech was greeted with sustained silence, then a standing ovation. “She was just a pistol,” says political analyst Charlie Cook. “No, not a pistol. It was more like an Uzi.”
Drew, 83, was somebody before much of the crowd was in nursery school, when women in journalism were researchers and receptionists and instructed to keep quiet. Drew did not keep quiet.
After launching her career at Congressional Quarterly as a six-month temp, she wrote for the New Yorker for almost two decades, the last as Washington correspondent. She is the author of 14.5 books — the .5 being the expanded 40th anniversary edition of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” She was a fixture on PBS and early political chat shows. A clip of her interrogating then-Attorney General Richard Kleindienst makes a cameo in the movie “All the President’s Men.” She did stints at the Atlantic and the New York Review of Books. She has been fired a couple of times, she told the audience.
A week later, Drew sits in her Georgetown living room, decorated in beige and tomato-bisque red, a Calder print above the fireplace, a covered swimming pool out back, the sort of elegant home found in Allen Drury novels. She is less than happy that her speech didn’t receive much coverage, but there is another point she wants to make.
“If a woman objects to an edit, she’s ‘difficult.’ But you don’t hear men being described as difficult,” she says, drinking tea from a china cup bordered with roses. “With a man, he’s ambitious, tough, relentless.” She notes, “You know, people don’t want to be corrected by a woman. I mean, a lot of men don’t. They can’t take it.”
“First, we’ve got to air it, and get it out there,” she says of workplace sexism. “Management has to pay more attention to it. Their editors should not be able to mistreat writers.”
Conversations with Drew go on scenic peregrinations, salted with piquant asides. She makes several suggestions as to how this article should be written. Her recall is exquisite. She’s active on Twitter and collects young talent, insistently curious about the now. Twice widowed, she goes out constantly.
Half her Wellesley Class of 1957, she estimates, graduated to marriage. “Ring fever,” she calls it. She, in contrast, took secretarial classes and arrived in Washington a couple of years later. Journalism just sort of happened. “I mean, I’m a series of accidents. It evolved,” she says, meaning her remarkable career. “It was something to do.”
In her 50s, Drew was dismissed from the New Yorker by its then-editor, the queen of buzz, Tina Brown. In her 80s, after 16 years, she was fired by then-New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma. After nine months of writing a piece a week, she left the New Republic in 2018 following repeated disagreements with a new editor. Does she believe that her treatment was also about age? “It wasn’t,” she says. It was about being a woman with strong opinions. Discussion over.
“You will always know exactly what Elizabeth thinks,” says Time national political correspondent Molly Ball. “She’s wonderfully straightforward.”
In her speech, in conversation and in previous interviews, Drew has referred to herself as “little Lizzy Brenner from Cincinnati,” which seems patently ridiculous. She’s a force, the redoubtable Ms. Drew. “There is this certain assumption where people think, ‘She must be a diva’ because I’ve had a certain amount of success,” she says. But, she notes, “I don’t take anything for granted.”
She’s still game, writing for the New York Times opinion page, the Daily Beast, the Vanity Fair website, the Columbia Journalism Review, an organization called Project Syndicate. “I mean, I’m big in the Hindustan Times,” she quips. Mention retirement, and her look is a slap. “Why?” she asks, as if she’s never heard such an absurd notion. “It’s too interesting.”
In 1973, in the midst of Watergate, the story that defined her early career, Drew warned legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, “I think we’re going to change vice presidents and presidents within a year,” she recalls. “Nobody was saying that.” Now, she doesn’t feel as prescient. President Trump, she believes, is far worse than Nixon. “You couldn’t imagine anything like this,” she says. “It’s very sad, actually. Where are we going to be when he’s gone, after he’s so coarsened things?”
A little later that afternoon, the long-awaited report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — or at least Attorney General William Barr’s synopsis of it — drops. Once again, Drew is busy making calls. She has two assignments to deliver by early the following week.
Karen Heller is a Washington Post Style writer.