- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Political correspondent John Dickerson is on the trail of his mother Nancy Dickerson, the first female correspondent for CBS television, in two ways.

Mr. Dickerson’s memoir/biography, “On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News’ First Woman Star,” published last year, recounts his research into his mother’s life and career.

“I’m on the trail of her story as I’m learning about it,” says Mr. Dickerson, who is 38 and lives in the District. “Since I’m covering politics and am on the campaign trail, the same as she covered, it has that second meaning of the parallels in our lives.”

Mr. Dickerson, Slate.com’s chief political correspondent and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, felt compelled to write the story of his mother’s life after taking custody of about 20 boxes of her papers, journals, letters and newspaper clippings after her death in October 1997.

“It was a great story both in its own right and because she was an important figure in my life,” Mr. Dickerson says.

In his preface, Mr. Dickerson summarizes his life with his mother, whose star was fading and who left network TV for independent production before he was 2.

“We lived in a big house and famous people came to call, but I wasn’t sure why that mattered, or why she did,” Mr. Dickerson writes. When he was 13, Mr. Dickerson’s parents divorced, and he moved in with his father.

“I was angry. I hated her: I thought she was a phony and a liar,” Mr. Dickerson says in the preface, a statement that he said has lead to some misunderstanding of what the book is about.

“On Her Trail” is a journey and a story that evolves with its telling, Mr. Dickerson says. It is about Washington in the 1960s and 1970s and gives political and press history.

“A son’s book about his mother has to be real and honest to be worth reading. And it has to be devolving and complex storytelling,” he says. “I think people who look at the beginning of the book and think this is harsh are talking about the reflections of a 13-year-old boy and mistaking the assessment.”

By the end of the book, Mr. Dickerson is writing as a man with a career, a wife and two children, including a daughter named after his mother, whom he considers a heroine in his own life.

“Mom loved image and glamour and insinuation, but she also liked to know a true thing when she could find it,” he writes. “I went looking for my mother’s story and found a woman who was compelled to find stories and tell them, too.”

Mrs. Dickerson was born in Wauwatosa, Wis., in 1927 and left for the District in 1950 for bigger things. She was hired by CBS in 1954, then went to NBC in 1963. There, she hosted the first NBC newscast anchored by a woman, “The News with Nancy Dickerson.” She was fired in 1970, and in 1981 started Television Corporation of America, where she made her own documentaries.

In 1962 then Nancy Hanschman she married Wyatt Dickerson, chief executive officer of real-estate development firm Liberty Equities and a widower with three young daughters. Together, they had two sons, Michael and John.

The Dickersons lived in Merrywood, a 35-room house in McLean, for 20 years. They hosted parties for the rich and famous. Mrs. Dickerson became known as a great society hostess, and she mixed her social life with her work in television.

“It was an amazing childhood,” Mr. Dickerson recalls. “We had all of this freedom, a big house and the liberty to run around and do as we pleased.”

Mrs. Dickerson turned care of her children over to others, and servants helped raise them. Her mothering had to fit into a schedule, but she would drop everything for the emergencies.

“There’s a difference between working to solve a child’s problems and connecting with that child,” Mr. Dickerson writes. “She did the right things from the outside but none of it brought us closer together on the inside.” As a result, Mrs. Dickerson’s authority over her children was diminished, and Michael and John teased, punished and bullied her.

Mrs. Dickerson wanted to be taken seriously, her son writes. She wanted to be center stage and to see the world, and could do both as a member of the press. She loved action and power. She worked at a time when discrimination against women was overt, but she shattered barriers for women and became an inspiration for many.

“She was an incredibly hard-working woman,” Mr. Dickerson says. “In journalism, there is no substitute for reading and doing the work and thinking through what you’re going to be writing and saying. She was very glamorous, attractive and talented, but she also worked very hard.”

Mrs. Dickerson wanted to be praised for her work and her intellect. Praise and a sense of achievement in the world of being a wife and mother was harder to come by and to measure, Mr. Dickerson says.

“She was a product of her time. No one tried to do what she did and raise five children while working in a competitive, high-powered career. She was making it up as she went along.”

Later in her life, Mrs. Dickerson and her youngest son became friends and found the same passion in their work. Mr. Dickerson knew he wanted to write and, like his mother, tell stories.

“One of the things Mom and I share is the interest in telling stories, seeing things other people can’t see and turning around and being able to tell them.”

“I wish I could apologize to Mom,” he writes. “I wish I’d given her a break. I’ve seen how insecure she was and it makes me sad to have misinterpreted it. So much of what I thought was pride, arrogance and selfishness grew out of that vulnerability.

“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. She became more real than the woman I actually knew.”

Nancy Dickerson hosted the first NBC newscast anchored by a woman, “The News with Nancy Dickerson,” and later began her own production company. She balanced her career with raising her sons, Michael and John.

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