Q&A with John Dickerson

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Nancy Dickerson

A lot of adult children regret not getting to know — really know — their parents before they pass. Few get a chance to make up for that. John Dickerson, a former TIME correspondent, has written a biography, On Her Trail, about his mother Nancy Dickerson, a pioneering female television journalist. After she died in 1997, he inherited her papers and diaries and eventually discovered a different woman than the one he thought he knew. In the process, he also uncovered a rich history of Washington society and the press during the 1960s and '70s. Dickerson spoke with TIME's Ana Marie Cox.

TIME: Why did you write this book?

Dickerson: Any child who loses a parent goes through a period of discovery afterwards. There's an old saying about the real stories coming out after the funeral. My experience with that was supercharged. Mom leftme 20 boxes of material from her life — her journals as a little girl, her diaries throughout her life, her love letters with my father and her reporter's notebooks from 30 years in Washington. Ours was a personal story that I thought needed to be told but when I read all the history and got a peek at the inner workings of Washington and the period of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, the story became even more compelling and worth telling — even if she hadn't been my mom.

Your mother had a lot of access to Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon. Was that a good or bad thing?

It was great for a while. She was able to see what no other journalist was and she knew the men in power better than most of her colleagues. I tend to think that's OK, especially today. The news diet is full of unknowing criticism and praise. Why not have at least one person who is on the inside who can present a knowing, if limited, view. In the end Mom was undone by her access. She was too close to the politicians and her bosses at NBC didn't like that. No reporter today could get as close as she got. No president lets anybody get that close any more.

How has Washington's professional culture changed since the 1960s? How is it the same?

There was so much more mixing between parties, and people seemed to have a genuine excitement about what they were trying to do. There was very little membrane between the work day and the social events in the evening. That's all gone now. The culture is the same in that thousands of unnoticed people come to this town wanting to do the right thing and trying to do the right thing.

How hard was it for her to be the first woman television journalist?

I never realized just how hard it was. I knew intellectually, of course, but to look at it closely was just amazing. It wasn't just that she was the only woman in the Washington TV news corps — that was difficult — but the rumors about her and the men she covered must have been such an emotional weight on her. Every time she did well people would whisper louder that she achieved what she did because she was flirting or doing more. Beyond that it was extraordinary to read what television executives, many of them at her own network, said during the '60s and '70s about how women were fundamentally unequipped to cover and report the news.

How has writing the book — and having a successful professional woman as your mother — affected how you view your female colleagues?

I've worked with an extraordinary number of talented women and never had any hang-ups about the many who have been my editors or bosses. I suppose writing the book made me even more empathetic about how hard it still is to be a woman in a man's world. Some things have changed since 1960, but a lot hasn't.

Did you see the controversial photo-shopped image of ElizabethVargas nursing her child at the anchor desk? Viewers didn't even realize your mother was pregnant with you when she was on television. Does that mean things have changed for women in television? What would your mother think of Vargas... or Katie Couric for that matter?

I'm not sure what to make of that picture. It was meant to be provocative but there's a cost. For all of the people spurred into having an adult conversation about the tradeoffs and Vargas' decision to scale back her professional career to be a mom there will be plenty who will not. For a public woman about to make Vargas' choice, the prospect of a magazine turning her choice into the subject ofprovocative editorial art won't make her decision easier. It'll be great when women can make the choice Vargas did and the world yawns. Mom would love Couric and Vargas because she would know how tough it is to do what they do as journalists and why it's even harder to do their jobs as women. She probably would have also been their harshest critics too since she believed the reason the prize is worth having is that it isn't given to you easily and your performance should not be evaluated uncritically.

What story would your mother want to cover if she were a working journalist today?

She'd be all over the 2008 campaign. It's so wide open. The personalities are great. The parties are in complete chaos. She would have been a sucker for both McCain and Hillary Clinton.

You use the term "Mommy Dearest" when talking about her. That's pretty harsh.

Well, it's in context. The personal, non-historical side of this book is about my relationship with her, which had a rough patch that happened to coincide with the release of that movie. I write about our hardest moments for 40 pages or so; the history and her life and our reconciliation take up the remaining three hundred.

How has writing this book changed the way you think about your own career?

I'm more conscious of the tradeoffs between what the public or Washington elites think is important and what is important.

What was the hardest part about writing this book?

Remembering what a jerk I was to my mother for parts of my life, remembering why I was right to be and realizing, after doing the emotional math, I owe her more gratitude than I ever expressed and more sympathy than I ever demonstrated.

What advice would you give to women (or men) trying to pursue competitive careers and raise a family?

It's the completely trite but true advice you read in supermarket magazines: fame is fleeting and life is short. If you want a life of panic that starts before the sun rises, is filled with rushing from the committee hearing, to the green room to the power lunch, thrilling cocktail party and then ends with Ambien so you can sleep off all the coffee you drank during the day to get through all that... then great. If you don't, then you'll have to work twice as hard to keep that life from taking control of you.