In the Arena

Anne Wexler

  • Share
  • Read Later

The first sentences in her various obituaries inevitably refer to Anne Wexler as “an influential power broker” or a “powerful lobbyist,” which I suppose sends signals of a certain sort into the blogosphere. But I never thought of Anne that way, even though she was one of the more powerful women in Washington. She was a mentor, a surrogate mom, a great friend, a woman of strength and honor, a total delight. 

I first met her in the summer of 1974, when I had just started as Richard Goodwin’s deputy in the Rolling Stone Washington bureau. Our headquarters was Ethel Kennedy’s home in Virginia, and I remember Anne and her beloved husband Joe Duffy, bouncing down the lawn toward the swimming pool, where a group of us were…hanging out. She and Joe were pure joy–near-newlyweds, at that point, giggly in love. Anne had run Joe’s antiwar campaign for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut in 1970, a campaign that featured an array of future political stars–both Clintons, John and Tony Podesta, Sherrod Brown, John Kerry and many more–working in the trenches, licking envelopes, going door to door. They lost the race, but found each other, which was something of a scandal since both were married to others at the time…and Joe was a minister to boot. (Anne was married to my future wife’s orthodontist, a weird coincidence. Update: Dr. Wexler was not my wife’s orthodontist–but the Wexlers were friends of my now deceased in-laws and Anne managed my mother-in-law’s benighted campaign for state legislature, an experience that Anne remembered with exquisite brevity: “Oy.”)

Hillary Clinton says that Anne Wexler gave her her first job. Scores of other women–and more than a few men–say the same. She was a feminist pioneer in Washington and was well known in the Carter Administration for finding promising young women politicians and moving them up the ladder. She promoted me, too, when Dick Goodwin left Rolling Stone and Jann Wenner was looking for a Washington bureau chief. Anne, who had just signed on as associate publisher, told Jann to hire me.

We were a very strange team, both relatively new to Washington–although Anne was far more successful at figuring out how the town worked than I was. Her position at Rolling Stone was a place-holder; it was clear that she’d be part of the next Democratic Administration. She was in constant demand by politicians who wanted her to run their campaigns. Ralph Nader, then a real reform icon, checked in with Anne about the chances of an independent presidential run. She finally chose Jimmy Carter–as did our mutual friend Hunter Thompson–which was one of the few differences Anne and I had in 30 years of friendship. (I liked the blowsy populist Fred Harris that year.)

Anne went on to become one of the more competent people in a not very distinguished Carter White House and then the first prominent woman lobbyist, forming her own firm, Wexler and Walker, in 1981. We never talked very much about her clients or her work. We talked politics, we talked books and movies, she gave me advice–always solid, smart, loving–about what to do with my career. Her politics, progressive and pragmatic, never changed. She lived and died with the Democratic Party. She  was not a complainer–indeed, she had been battling cancer for years before she finally told me about it (a great many people who knew and loved her didn’t even know until the end). 

She  was, remarkably, Anne until the last, reading books on her kindle–she was a huge fan of spy novels and mysteries–and receiving friends, talking political strategy on issues ranging from health care to Iran. Bill and Hillary Clinton stopped by two weeks before she died, reminiscing about that 1970 campaign and sharing the latest gossip. I saw her for the last time a day later. She and Joe and their children were planning her memorial service. “She’s still giving orders,” her son Danny told me. She slipped away, gently, on Friday. She was a dear, dear friend…and, amidst a lifetime of memories, I’ll always remember Anne most for that expression on her face, as she and Joe bounced down the lawn at Hickory Hill, arm in arm: pure joy, pure love.