Born 16 November 1935, Cincinnati, Ohio
Daughter of William J. and Estelle Jacobs Brenner; married J.Patterson Drew, 1964 (died 1970); David Webster, 1981.
Upon graduation from Wellesley College in 1957, Elizabeth Drew worked for two years as an associate editor at the Writer, and then went on to write for the Congressional Quarterly. In 1967, she became the Washington editor for the Atlantic Monthly, and by 1973 was a regular contributor to the New Yorker with her "Letter from Washington." In 1971, Drew began interviewing public figures on her radio program "Thirty Minutes With…," and since 1973 has been a commentator for the Washington Post-Newsweek stations and a panelist for "Inside Washinton" (formerly "Agronsky and Company"). Among other honors, Drew has received the Society of Magazine Writers Award for Excellence (1970), the Dupont-Columbia Award for Broadcast Journalism (1972-73), The Newswomen's Club of New York Award (1983), the Washington Monthly Political Books Award (1984), and the Edward Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting (1988). As a political journalist, Drew has been described as "the American Boswell" and "the Samuel Pepys of Washington."
Drew has often directed her attention to the "complexities of governing" and the "protracted, strange, disturbing and somewhat comic process of choosing a president." Her articles and books have focused on specific topics such as presidential campaigns, congressional ethics, lobbying, regulatory commissions, foreign policy, and the events of the Watergate period. Drew combines a consistently understated tone with a restrained style and often organizes a series of focused interviews around a central question. Using the journal form of expression, she carefully describes what has happened and why, as well as providing a feeling for the atmosphere surrounding the events. Drew deftly juxtaposes the ludicrous and the profound on the American political scene. Her analytical and critical stance is tempered by her ironic and humorous sensibility.
Drew's highly praised Washington Journal: The Events of 1973-1974 developed from a journal which she kept during the Watergate years. Drew felt that "being a journalist in Washington [during Watergate] was like being at the battlefront," and her text depicts daily confrontations with "one stupefying event after another." Recognizing early in 1973 that the nation would have to deal with the question of impeaching a president, Drew meticulously observed key figures on the Judiciary Committee and developed an evocative case study of the process of decisionmaking during crisis.
Drew interprets Watergate abuses in the context of a modern representative democracy confronted with unaccountable executives, reactive congresses, and citizens too easily prone to "acquiescence, inattention, [and] cynicism." Washington Journal graphically recalls to mind the "difficult, frightening and fumbling struggle" to resolve the question of "whether our constitutional form of government would continue."
Drew's second book, American Journal: The Events of 1976 (1977), was drawn from material previously published in the New Yorker. Written in journal form, it examines the process of choosing a president during the nation's bicentennial year. Based on firsthand observation of the pressured candidates during the election period, Drew offers evidence that the big question of how candidates would be at governing is given insufficient consideration in the American political process. With the focus "on such things as a candidate's smile, and his affability and how he is doing in Illinois," candidates have accepted a process that prohibits any possibility of articulating a "broad and worthy vision of the American future."
Drew is unique in her ability to discern and pursue the "important questions facing the country." Her interviews with national leaders reveal their personalities as well as their process of thought. Drew explores the complexity behind and below the surface realities of the contemporary political experience. For future scholars who seek a sense of national politics since 1960, her work proves invaluable.
In Senator (1979), Drew recounts 10 days in the congressional life of John Culver in the Senate and in his home state, Iowa. The book is written as a case study, realistically detailing the trivial and morally problematic aspects of political life without offering synthesis or analysis. The book is frequently excerpted in anthologies assigned for college political science courses.
In Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign (1981), Drew explains that she is taking a journalistic approach that "constitutes a history of the period—an account of the realities of the time, unguided, and also undistorted, by hindsight." The goal is to show "how people in politics think, calculate, react" and to capture how it looks and feels. One reviewer applauded her "cool, lucid style" and "reasoned fairminded approach" to her interviews with political actors and their advisors. Another reviewer, however, sees Drew spending time "lovingly describing Democratic programs or tearing apart Republican rhetoric."
A perception by Drew's colleagues that she is a "serious, humane, responsibly liberal, one-track-minded, mildly workaholic veteran" Washington insider, is especially borne out in Politics and Money: The Road to Corruption (1983). Drew carefully synthesizes the intricacies of the role of money in the American political system and provides a specifically argued analysis of what should be done to "bring the nation back closer to the fundamental principles of democracy." Her investigation into the "great rivers of money that were essentially unaccounted for, and legally questionable, flowing into both our congressional and presidential elections" has been consistently credited as one of the first journalistic attempts to document the problems inherent in the process of reforming campaign finance laws.
With Campaign Journal: The Political Events of 1983-1984 (1985), Drew returns to the detailed diary entries, recording a presidential election campaign with much of the focus on strategies used by Democratic Party candidates trying to win back the White House. Election Journal: Political Events of 1987-1988 (1989) offers more discursive judgements of events and people than her previous books on presidential campaigns, assigning to Ronald Reagan, for instance, the role of "dominant figure" in the 1988 election. Both books reflect what a reviewer called her "extraordinary capacity for eliciting the informed observations of insiders."
Since 1989 Drew has continued to contribute the "Letter from Washington" for the New Yorker as well as to write articles for such publications as the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Her subjects have included the role of Congress in the post-Cold War era, politics in the Soviet Union, the 1992 presidential election campaign, and the politics of campaign finance reform. In 1993 she began work on a book about the first year of the Clinton administration.
For On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency (1994), Drew interviewed every high official in the White House, along with Cabinet officers, Capitol Hill staff, and other Washington insiders. Although criticized for the number of anonymous quotes, this method allowed her to deliver an accumulation of painstaking detail that enhances the book's credibility and paints one of the fullest pictures of the Clinton Administration's creation of its ambitious but ill-fated health care proposal.
Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House (1996) offers a similarly detailed portrait, this time of then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The exhaustive work—a journalist colleague described her "lichen-like attachment" to Gingrich—followed the Speaker's fall from triumph to failure within the space of one year. The book highlights a criticism of the type of journalistic reportage Drew utilizes; it creates an accurate picture of a moment in time but lacks the potential for the kind of reliable analysis that a historical work can provide.
In Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America (1997), Drew was applauded for her insight that the interests of a political party may conflict with those of its candidate: Bob Dole's presidential campaign was abandoned by the Republicans to increase their chances of winning the House and Senate. The book, a look at the activities and ethics of several powerful conservative lobbies, was panned by some for shining light on the conservatives at the same time that the Clinton Administration's ethical difficulties were coming to light. Yet critics agreed that Whatever It Takes offers Drew's usual fair—if slightly left-leaning—portrait, teeming with insider information.
Marzolf, M., Up from the Footnote: A History of Women Journalists (1977).
CA 104 (1982). WWAW (1997/1998).
American Spectator (July 1996). BW (26 May 1997). CSM (9 Nov. 1977). JAS (Aug. 1983). National Review (9 Aug. 1985). NR (30 Dec. 1981, 13 Mar. 1995). NYRB (21 Jan. 1982, 6 June 1996, 14 Aug. 1997). NYTBR (14 Sept. 1975, 9 Nov. 1977, 13 May 1979, 8 Nov. 1981, 11 Sept. 1983, 17 March 1985, 2 April 1989, 27 Nov. 1994). Newsweek (18 Dec. 1971, 13 Oct. 1975). PW (26 Sept. 1994). Reason (Dec. 1997). Washington Journalism Review (Dec. 1981).
—JENNIFER L. TEBBE
UPDATED BY KAREN RAUGUST