Column: ‘Watergate Girl’ is Jill Wine-Banks’ memories of being a female on political front lines

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There is a crazy man in the White House, his approval rating in free fall, surrounded by a group of enablers and criminals. He is assailed from many fronts. The country is in political chaos and right in the middle of it is a smart and attractive young female attorney from Skokie, Ill.

Her name is Jill Volner, the year is 1973 and the president is Richard Nixon. Now, with the benefit of decades of emotional, intellectual and psychological distance from the events of that time and after a very successful post-Watergate career, Volner (now Jill Wine-Banks) revisits that troubled era — and gives us a fairly frank look at her life before, during and after — in a new book titled “The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President” (Henry Holt and Co.).

It will remind those of us of a certain age of the mess that was Watergate and give us some of the characters, good and bad — Archibald Cox, John Sirica, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Richard Ben-Veniste — whose names are now for many only “who was that again?” memories.

This is a fine book from an insider’s perspective, by the woman who left the Department of Justice after a few years to become the sole female on the trial team of the Watergate special prosecutor’s obstruction of justice and cover-up task force. Never bogged down by courtroom doings or legalese, it focuses most firmly on the confrontation between Wine-Banks and Rose Mary Woods.

As Nixon’s secretary and close confidant, Woods was the “author” of an 18 1/4 u00bd-minute section of tape of a conversation between Nixon and Haldeman that had been erased.

Wine-Banks was charged with “unlocking the mystery of that gap.” She admits to having felt “sorry for Woods. … I saw something of myself in the president’s trim, copped-haired secretary, in the way we’d both had to survive in a world of men who’d often bullied and belittled us.”

The press played its part, diminishing Wine-Banks in such headlines as “A Lawyer in Miniskirts.”

“Most journalists writing about me focused on my appearance, down to my eye shadow,” she writes.

Even though concerned with the most serious business and operating in dark, sexist shadows, Wine-Banks provides some lighter moments. At the annual gathering of journalists and their guests held by the Gridiron Club, she “sold kisses in a booth with Dan Rather.” At a social gathering, shortly after he was named vice president, Gerald Ford asked her to dance and “as the orchestra played ‘Come Fly with Me,’ Ford spun me around the ballroom.” Though you may remember the chairman of the senate Watergate hearings, that white-haired folksy Democratic senator from North Carolina named Sam Ervin, did you know (or will admit to having purchased) his spoken-word album, “Senator Sam at Home,” a gathering of anecdotes and drawled song lyrics, including Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

But most of her 16-hour-long days were filled with very serious stuff and we all know, or should, how it ended: Nixon’s resignation, a few guys in jail, Woodward and Bernstein and many books.

This one deserves to be placed among the best of them. What elevates it is Wine-Banks’ willingness to share herself, without aspiring to the role of feminist pioneer. She is frank about what many at the time saw were her “failings”: she cries, sees a shrink, tells of her nose job as a teen, her affairs, her emotional ups and downs. About her personal life she is refreshingly introspective, airing long-buried secrets.

She was miserable for years. Born in 1943 and raised in Chicago, she was the eldest child in a “close-knit Jewish family (who) had never disappointed my parents or ever given them I reason to doubt my character.”

She did not, when the family moved to Skokie. She did not, through high school, college and law school. She was a dutiful daughter and became a dutiful wife to lawyer Ian Volner, who she had met when both were students at Columbia University Law School. “His brilliance dazzled me,” she writes. They were married in Chicago and honeymooned at “a hotel overlooking Lake Michigan” (the Drake?). That began unfortunately, with sex that was “awkward, quick and not at all satisfying,” beginning years in which “our sex life never improved, which left me feeling unloved and undesirable.”

By the time Watergate came around she had “grown used to my husband’s indifference,” and had embarked on a serious years-long affair with Kurt Mullenberg, a lawyer she had first met at the Department of Justice, a “divorced father of three sons … tall and handsome, with thick, wavy hair, an endearing gap in his front teeth, and startlingly blue eyes.”

Once toying with a career in journalism, Wine-Banks writes in an appealing plainspoken style and neatly balances her own personal story with the particulars of the Watergate mess.

She can occasionally get a little too literary: In the wake of the resignation of her boss and the second Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski (the first, Archibald Cox, was a victim of the noted Saturday Night Massacre) she writes, “The Ginkgo trees on my street, as if shocked by the news, dropped their yellow leaves in one swoosh. In the morning, the glorious fan-shaped foliage blanketed the sidewalk and cars.”

But those indulgences are infrequent. And she does not fall prey to the urge to fashion herself as a pioneering feminist. She is of her time and by her own actions and career has surely succeeded.

After Watergate, she was wooed by television and by various big law firms, working for one for a short time; became the first woman to serve as general counsel for the U.S. Army; joined the Chicago-based firm of Jenner & Block; became the first female deputy attorney general of Illinois; executive director of the American Bar Association; worked in high level position with Motorola, Maytag, a nonprofit or two; worked for the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

That’s some resume but what obviously matters more to her is what occurred in her personal life. She and Kurt split up and she and Ian got a divorce and she found love for keeps with Michael Banks, an antiques dealer in Chicago’s northern suburbs. He been one of her high school classmates and senior prom date at Niles Township High School. They had fallen out of touch for a decade when, after seeing her in a newspaper photo, he wrote her a letter. The letters flowed, turned in dates and they were married here in 1980 and this where they now live, happily.

She retired at 65 but has, sort of, fulfilled her early dreams of being a journalist, by becoming a TV commentator. After she wrote an op-ed for the Tribune’s editorial pages about the president’s May 2017 firing of FBI director James Comey, the networks came calling and she signed on as a legal analyst for MSNBC. They knew what they were getting. The op-ed had been headlined “Worse that Watergate” in print and in this book she forthrightly states, “Donald Trump is more dangerous than Richard Nixon.”

She forthrightly states a lot of things in this book. Not many of them are as potently political or potentially incendiary, but most of them are compelling and honest.


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