Slate.com political correspondent Dickerson explores his mother’s complicated legacy.
In the 1960s, Nancy Dickerson was one of America’s favorite reporters, rising to TV stardom with a combination of Christiane Amanpour’s reporting skills, Katie Couric’s charm and Jackie O’s sophisticated good looks. Her son attributes Nancy’s success in the male preserve of broadcast journalism to hard work and charisma. Born Nancy Hanschman in 1927, she studied with a speech coach and endeared herself to leading Washington hostesses, who taught her the art of scintillating conversation. An affair with Congressman Ken Keating also greased a few wheels; the author believes the rumors of affairs with JFK and LBJ were false. She married widower Wyatt Dickerson in 1962; John was born in 1968. As a mother, Nancy occupied the large middle ground between Joan Crawford and Carol Brady. She gained only ten pounds when pregnant—“No wonder I had to go to all those doctors in adolescence. She starved me,” John writes with a touch of both humor and pathos, referring to more than just food. Her son doesn’t dwell on Nancy-as-feminist-role-model: He’s sympathetic to the sexism that dogged her, yet he raises some subtle questions about her tactics for breaking through the glass ceiling. Going back to work two weeks after giving birth provided a model for other women that was, in his view, “stoic, but not very helpful.” John’s narrative sometimes moves from his mother’s reporting in the 1960s to his own experiences in the same profession. The chapter on Nancy’s coverage of JFK’s assassination, for example, ends with his recollections of covering the disappearance of John Jr.’s plane over Martha’s Vineyard 36 years later. But these autobiographical touches are basically asides; John writes principally as a journalist digging up the facts about Nancy’s life, and at times, one wishes he would open up a bit more about his own feelings.
A fascinating, if somewhat distant, portrait of a cultural icon who happened to also be a mom.