- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

ON HER TRAIL: MY MOTHER, NANCY DICKERSON, TV NEWS’ FIRST WOMAN STAR

By John Dickerson

Simon and Schuster, $24.95, 335 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Once upon a time, broadcast news in the United States was pretty much an all-male affair. Radio preferred a deep masculine voice, preferably Midwestern in tone, and this carried over into the early years of television, which was dominated by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite.

But, as always, there was an exception to this rule, and she was called Nancy Hanschman, who hailed from Wisconsin and thus did have the Midwestern intonation even if she was no baritone.

After her marriage in 1962 to wealthy businessman C. Wyatt Dickerson, she adopted his last name, but whether Hanschman or Dickerson, Nancy was up there with all the big guys who covered politics — and particularly the president — for the burgeoning, ever-more-important medium of television.

As John Dickerson demonstrates in “On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News’ First Woman Star,” being the only woman in an all men club guaranteed that Nancy would stand out, but she never relied only on this. Driven, fiercely ambitious and immensely hard-working, she always went the extra mile, wrote another draft, took the extra take.

If her scoop sometimes came from the extra advantage being a woman gave her, so be it: It was compensation for all the sexism that had made her road that much harder.

She had “sharp elbows,” recalls the wife of one of her colleagues, but what viewers saw was a poised, charming, professional reporter. Off camera, the single Nancy Hanschman was known to be the escort of bachelor senators like Henry Jackson and those a little more in the swim were aware of her close relationship to married ones like Kenneth Keating and, more tantalizingly, two senators whom she would later cover in the White House: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

After her marriage, Nancy Dickerson became an acknowledged leader in Washington society, entertaining showily across the Potomac at her palatial estate Merrywood (once home successively to a young Gore Vidal and a still younger Jacqueline Kennedy) even as she continued to cover hard political stories.

Already a successful pioneer in a highly visible medium, Dickerson became even more of a resentment and jealousy magnet after wealth, and still more glamour, were added to the mix. As Mr. Dickerson tartly observes:

“I had always assumed Mom faced a stronger form of [male] chauvinism than I see today — tough women are bitches, pretty ones are gossiped about. Mom was both difficult and pretty so she would have gotten a double dose. I imagined that meant she dealt with a lot more whispers and a sprinkling of overt comments.”

Having followed in his mother’s footsteps (he served as White House correspondent for Time magazine and is currently chief political correspondent for Slate), John Dickerson is well-placed to understand just how much has changed and not changed since the days in which Nancy had to fight so hard to make her mark.

To his credit, he has brought to this book his knowledge of the profession and of the eternal dialectics of the Washington political scene and has attempted to approach his subject in his customary professional manner:

“Writing this book, I carried Mom around in my head the way I would any subject of a profile. She wasn’t my mother anymore; she was the person I was trying to figure out and put down on paper. Her life wasn’t something I was related to. It was a series of bits I was trying to fit together.

“I spent so many months with the young Nancy Hanschman’s letters and television performances, she became more real than the woman I actually knew. She shines on television not because she’s a star, but because she’s authentic: hungry and so eager, she’s a little nervous. For her, the news is a simple transaction: she goes where the action is and she comes back to tell us. She’s just a conduit.”

In doing so, he has clearly gained a new and deeper understanding of the woman that he knew up close as a difficult and demanding mother, who expected everyone (and especially her son) to live up to what at times must have seemed to him impossibly high standards.

Their relationship was by his own account a fraught one from his very infancy and if “On Her Trail” is in the end not merely another “Mommie Dearest,” it sometimes veers uncomfortably in that direction. I am reminded of William Butler Yeats’ words from “Among School Children”: “a tale … told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event that changed some childish day to tragedy” — well, fortunately in this case not to tragedy, but to a lingering resentment from childhood that still seems to be simmering away today.

The Dickersons split up when John was a young teenager and he elected to live with his father at a time when both of them were no fans of Nancy. Since then, the book tells us, Wyatt Dickerson is wont to excuse or explain away most of his former wife’s faults; time seems to have healed more of his wounds than his son’s. At times, the tone of “On Her Trail” becomes decidedly unpleasant and some of the words that creep in reveal perhaps more than their author may have intended:

“I’ve got an authentic Nancy Hanschman in my head and suddenly a very different person presents herself. I’m reminded of how Mom would lose her natural ease later in life and replace it with something less authentic.

“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. You either have to going to parties, keep being seen in their glow, or you have to go out to keep telling the same old stories, each time adding a little more rouge.”

It is now nearly a decade since Nancy Dickerson’s death and it seems clear to me that she will always be regarded as an important figure in the development of television news and in the evolution of women’s professional role in American society. Inevitably, there will a more measured, impartial biographical study of her one day, but in the meantime, her son has painted a memorable portrait of the woman and her career.

His is a unique and authentic view of Nancy Hanschman Dickerson and he may indeed have created an indelible impression of her that will shape future studies of this phenomenal woman.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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