The first time I ever heard my mother sound nervous was last July, and by then she had been dead for two years. I was at the L.B.J. library in Austin, Texas, listening to a telephone call she had placed to President Lyndon Johnson more than four years before I was born. "Nancy Dickerson is on line two," begins the White House operator. Johnson picks up: "Yes, honey." She tries to start with a joke, but it warbles out: "The next time I need a new swimming suit I'm going to consult you." The President is silent, having forgotten a quip he made about her fashion sense that was picked up in the papers. Now she's jittery.
She moves on, pitching him a story she wants to do for NBC News about Johnson's special assistant. "We want to follow Jack Valenti all over with whatever he does and take pictures," she says, trying to make it sound fun. With her faint Midwestern accent it sounds like she's delivering a line in a musical. "No," Johnson comes back quickly. "You'll have more jealousy here than I can deal with now." She tries again for several more minutes, but Johnson shoots her down.
I didn't know what I'd find at the L.B.J. library when I went there searching for scraps of my mother. She died as a somebody, or someone who had been a somebody, anyway--as the first network newswoman for CBS. To baby-boomer women it must seem absurd that I would describe her that way, but by the time I was old enough to pay attention, women correspondents were everywhere, and her career was in eclipse, with only a few more turns in front of the cameras. She was a veteran of two networks and PBS by then and no longer had--or didn't show--the butterflies that are stirring on that phone call. So I am discovering a different woman in that conversation and in the cracked binders of newspaper articles from the one I knew for 30 years. I am finding the woman other people always told me about.
I admire her stride, but that's because I am following in her footsteps. (Though, of course, she did it all in heels.) I've been on the other end of that phone line, tap-dancing to bring a source around. And this year, I've been shuttling from Washington to Austin, stuffing myself at age 32 into the Bush campaign jet the way she did into those drafty prop planes in the same town, at the same age, 40 years ago. I too have drinks at the Driskill hotel and send a postcard to my dad on a slow afternoon.
I run into her old sources at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. They've come back to relive Camelot's stop here in 1960 when they had dark, slicked-back hair and offered serious phrases to a young woman who was the first to cover such an event for television. In Milwaukee, Wis., where I stop with W., my aunt hands me a cache of Mom's letters. By election time, my Bush briefing papers have been smashed up against these relics in my cases for so long that the smell of the barns and attics where the notes were stored has soaked through everything.