With the flair and elegance of Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Dickerson not only charmed every power player in Washington for five decades, but also broke down many barriers for women journalists to come. She understood that American media in the sixties was suspicious of women: “You hear the voices of women newscasters all over Europe…In this country a woman is still associated with nonthinking. The profession is still riddled with prejudice.” Dickerson surmounted the obstacles with style and grace, becoming the first woman correspondent for CBS, the first woman to report from the floor of a political convention, the first woman to broadcast from the Senate floor, and the first woman to host a daily news program on network television. She also sparkled behind the scenes. In 1971 Dickerson became an independent broadcaster, eventually starting her own syndicated news company, Television Corporation of America. She produced many award-winning documentaries for PBS, including the acclaimed 784 Days That Changed America—From Watergate to Resignation. After she broke through as a female correspondent, she experienced no problem from her sources, learning very quickly the truth of media politics: “The news sources themselves—congressmen, senators and other officials—were highly deferential—as they are to most network correspondents, for the simple reason that network reporters are powerful, and by one night’s report can profoundly affect a political career.”
Born Nancy Hanschman, she grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, which she later called “Eisenhower’s ‘heartland’ and the backbone of Richard Nixon’s Middle America.” For two years, she attended Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, where she studied piano, and then she transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in Spanish and Portuguese. After graduation, Dickerson was selected to be a student delegate for the United Nations in Europe. There, she was profoundly affected by the devastation of World War II and desired “to do something to see that this never happened again.” While on the Continent, she worked as a typist for the Economic Cooperation Administration and as a model for Nina Ricci in Paris. Her parents requested that she return to fulfill her contractual obligations as a teacher. Back in Wisconsin, her restlessness as an educator was relieved in the summer by taking graduate courses in government at Harvard University.
After teaching for two years, Dickerson traveled to New York in 1951, searching for a more stimulating job. Having no luck in Manhattan, she journeyed to Washington, D.C., and got a registrar’s job at the Institute of Languages of Georgetown University. Soon after, she secured a dream job, working as an assistant for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which she termed “a graduate course in government.” While doing research and helping speechwriters, she experienced some of Washington’s most influential politicians close up, including Senators J. William Fulbright and Joseph McCarthy. Although Dickerson enjoyed every minute of her work, she realized the restrictions because she was a woman: “I could not travel with its members, and since I was young and female, I was told that there was no chance for me to make investigative trips on my own, as male staff members did.”
In 1954, CBS was looking for a newsman to produce two radio programs, The Leading Question and Capitol Cloakroom, which required talking to politicians on the air live. Because of her Congressional experience and her ability to form pertinent questions, Dickerson talked her way into an interview: “They wanted a newspaper person, a man, who knew Capitol Hill. I’ve never worked on a newspaper. Obviously, I’m not a man. But I did know Capitol Hill.” She was hired and became a regular on the Washington circuit, getting to know most of the senators and representatives.
Dickerson was given additional responsibilities later that year when she was made associate producer of Face the Nation, CBS’s radio and television answer to NBC’s Meet the Press. She proved so adept at persuading newsmakers to go on the air she was called “CBS’s secret weapon.” Having taken some time off to study speech at Catholic University, she also began appearing on Face the Nation and was told by a vice president: “Listen, you’re going to go on this program, and we’ve never had a woman on it before. Now don’t giggle.” Her career changed dramatically in 1959 when she went to Europe to do a story on women in the army, much of it on her own vacation time. She noticed various European reactions to Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to America and began filing reports for various CBS broadcasts. When she returned home, Dickerson felt differently about herself: “I had created a new career out of reactions to Khrushchev’s adventures in the United States, and by the end of my trip to Europe I considered myself a foreign correspondent. A prophet is without honor in his own country; while CBS would not think of my broadcasting from Washington, in Europe, I had acquired new wisdom, previously unapparent to them.”
Back in Washington, she still met resistance from male reporters and continued her fight to be an on-air reporter. When she was able to coax Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn into doing an exclusive television interview, Dickerson was finally noticed by the network brass: “By now CBS was grudgingly beginning to believe that if I said I would produce a certain body, I would do it; so far, I always had.” On February 22, 1960, Dickerson became the first female correspondent for CBS News. With Eric Severeid and Edward R. Murrow as mentors, she began covering the 1960 presidential campaign, following Democratic candidates Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson. She reported from both conventions and covered President Kennedy’s inauguration. In November 1960 she was given her own weekday radio program, One Woman’s Washington, in which she interviewed politicians and reported on special events in the nation’s capital. She regularly followed the advice of her friend Murrow: “Don’t tell everything you know. Just tell them the one thing you want them to know and tell it straight so that they understand. It’s not necessary to establish your wide knowledge.” In 1962 she married real estate investor Claude Wyatt Dickerson, and their home, Merrywood, became the site of many social functions with the Washington elite.
Dickerson felt that her reports were often given minor-league status, shunned to radio and inconsequential television programs. Weighing advice from Vice President Lyndon Johnson, she decided to join NBC News in 1963. She scooped other networks by announcing Johnson’s running mate, Hubert Humphrey. Johnson was so taken with her that he often opened press briefings with a jaunty “Hi, Nancy.” At NBC she was given more airtime, including featured appearances on The Huntley-Brinkley Report and The Today Show. But some male journalists still remained resentful, like the anonymous reporter who told TV Guide that Dickerson “uses her very feminine appeal to get politicians to open up and talk.”
Dickerson did many types of reporting for NBC, including creating syndicated stories for affiliates. She was most at home doing live coverage: “The most exciting thing in television is being on a story live—election night, or a convention, any of those things that you do live…but they take a lot of ability.” In 1970 Dickerson left NBC and become an independent broadcaster and producer. She represented the Public Broadcasting System in an interview with President Nixon, which was produced by the major networks. She was a political commentator on the syndicated daily news show Inside Washington, becoming the first woman to have a daily news program on network television. After forming the Television Corporation of America in 1980, she produced many award-winning documentaries on various subjects, including women in the Middle East, the energy crisis, the women’s movement, and single-issue politics for PBS. Her 784 Days That Changed America—From Watergate to Resignation received a Peabody Award and a Silver Gavel Award from the Bar Association. Dickerson later worked for Fox News as a commentator from 1986 until 1991. In 1996 she helped to anchor the coverage of election night on PBS.
Dickerson summarized her life and thoughts in her 1976 autobiography, Among Those Present. The transforming developments in women’s rights continued to amaze her. When she arrived in Washington, there were no women in network news. Worse yet, “It was devastating to be told not to try because you were female—or worse, to be simply be ignored because you were.” Dickerson helped to change that world, opening doors for all women journalists. She died in October 1997 due to complications from a stroke, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.