Congratulations, Elizabeth Drew

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Tuesday night in Washington, my friend Elizabeth Drew was inducted into Hall of Fame of the Society of Professional Journalists D.C. Chapter. I introduced her at the awards ceremony, and here’s what I said:

Elizabeth Drew is probably best known for her 19 years at the New Yorker and her 15 books about American politics. But as a writer for The Atlantic, I am a little bit biased toward the earlier period of her career.  

I want to begin by reading the biographical note that ran with her byline in the September 1965 issue of The Atlantic:

A Cincinnati-born, Wellesley-educated magazine writer and author of children's plays, Mrs. Drew lives in Washington with her lawyer husband and writes as a freelancer. A former staff member of the Congressional Quarterly, she has had ample opportunity to study that Americanized Byzantine process by which the United States Congress deals with issues before it.

The article is titled “The Quiet Victory of the Cigarette Lobby: How It Found the Best Filter Yet—Congress.” In it, Elizabeth reported that while Congress was patting itself on the back and claiming to have acted on the Surgeon General's landmark report on the health effects of cigarettes, what it had actually done was protect the tobacco industry from tough regulation by preempting the Federal Trade Commission and the states with a window-dressing federal law. The industry was aided by the best lobbyists money could buy and a passel of complicit congressmen from tobacco-growing states. And, she wrote, "it was the industry's good fortune that President Johnson remained aloof from the battle."

The piece is classic Elizabeth Drew: Tough and unsparing, crystal-clear, a vivid dissection of an essential topic based on encyclopedic understanding of the political process. It was her very first article for The Atlantic. She wrote it in a weekend. And it captures so many of the qualities that have made Elizabeth Drew a profound inspiration to me.

Elizabeth wrote for The Atlantic for several years. She had her own interview show on PBS, which made a splash early on when Senator Edmund Muskie yelled at her for a question he didn't like. In 1973, she met with the New Yorker editor William Shawn and told him she had a strange hunch that within a year the president and vice-president would be replaced.  

He told her to write about it. “Write it,” another of her mentors said, “so that 40 years from now people can say, ‘So that's what it was like.’” Elizabeth began keeping a journal of that tumultuous time, and the resulting book, Washington Journal, recently turned 40 and was reissued. There is no better chronicle of what those years were like—the incredible strain on American democracy that Watergate caused.

There are too many highlights of Elizabeth's career for me to fully list, from being the first reporter to really diagnose the effects of money on the political process to her New Yorker series, which became a book, on what a senator is and what he does, because she realized most Americans had no idea.

There were setbacks along the way: Male editors told her, "We don't hire women." A TV boss said, "There's a problem with women on the air." She was fired three times, notably in 1992 by the new New Yorker editor Tina Brown, who wanted to make a fresh start at the magazine. She has faced personal tragedy, including life-threatening illness and the deaths of two beloved husbands. But no one and nothing has ever managed to keep this tenacious woman down.

She never quit writing books and articles, and she never quit wanting to know everything about what was going on in Washington and how it all worked. Curiosity is the unquenchable soul of a great reporter, and you cannot quench Elizabeth Drew's curiosity. These days, her writing can be found on Twitter and in the New York Review of Books. The editor, Bob Silvers, could not be here tonight, but I have a letter from him in honor of the occasion; he says to Elizabeth: “I salute you for all your original work and this triumph over a most difficult world.”

Elizabeth has become a dear friend and mentor to me in the last few years. There is no better or more elegant place for Washington gossip and companionship than her dining-room table. There is no one more generous with her insights and ideas. I asked her what I should say in my introduction tonight, and she said: "That I'm really not the pain in the ass that everybody thinks, and that I can type quickly." But if there's anything I've learned from Elizabeth, it's the great value for a reporter of being a pain in the ass: aggressive, demanding, and utterly relentless in the search for the truth. And it doesn't hurt to also be able to type.