Abramson’s friends say the coverage she’s gotten since her headline-making promotion last summer has missed her humanity and sense of humor. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer has known Abramson since high school. They reconnected at the Wall Street Journal and decided to write a book together about the sexual harassment allegations that nearly derailed Thomas’s nomination. Strange Justice became a best seller, but Mayer remembers one moment during their research that she says encapsulates what she calls their “Lucy and Ethel” style of teamwork.
Working on their book after hours, they sat down with a video of a porno flick Thomas was rumored to have rented. “We felt we had to watch it, to understand him,” says Mayer. “It was called Bad Mama Jama, and it featured an enormously obese African-American woman. Jill, whose kids were then in grade school, waited until they were safely asleep upstairs, and then she and I popped the video into the player and sat down on her couch under an ugly, homemade crocheted afghan. Within about 20 minutes, both of us were sound asleep. The film was so boring, and stupid, and lumbering, it just put both of us out cold. When we finally woke up, as the film ended, Jill couldn’t stop laughing at the spectacle of the two of us, middle-aged working moms, too exhausted to even stay awake through a porno film. It was a cause for giggles long after.” Mayer says they still think of themselves as “two great friends who are constantly getting caught in scrapes and capers—and teetering far closer to the edge of hilarious disaster than most people probably realize.”
At the time, besides writing the Thomas book, Abramson was reporting a wide array of stories involving money and politics. She was a natural bloodhound but says she also developed important insights about journalism during those years. While Reagan was president, she and a colleague wrote a story exposing political cronyism at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It was a very good, high-impact piece about the very young aides around the HUD secretary, who was then Sam Pierce,” she says. “[We] called them, I think, a brat pack. They all had gotten their jobs through political connections and were very casual about letting political influence color decisions on, like, housing projects for the poor. I was proud of the article.
“I think it was perfectly fair,” she continues. “But maybe a year, a year and a half after, when the HUD scandal was by then ancient history to me, I was crossing Farragut Park to go to the White House, and someone from a bench said, ‘Jill Abramson,’ and then literally started reciting the lead paragraph of the story. And it was one of these people.”
Abramson joined the former aide on the bench, and they talked. “He felt like his life had been destroyed,” she says. “I still felt the piece was legitimate, but it struck me. I’d done so many stories . . . it was just, I think, a healthy reminder that every word that you write about someone is branded on them, and words are not casual things.”
In 1997, Dowd told her friend that the New York Times was looking for more women, and Abramson asked to be considered for a job there. She was hired and three years later became D.C. bureau chief.
Until that point, Abramson had a long record of smooth relations with powerful male bosses. But the new executive editor at the Times, Howell Raines, made it clear he wanted to replace her. “When I would go to book parties and other events in Washington, people would ask me, ‘How are you?’ like I had cancer,” she said in a New York magazine interview years later. “I went from kick-ass Washington journalist to I had a dread disease.”