BY ELIZABETH DUNLOP RICHTER
As a legal analyst for MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Report on a recent Wednesday, Wine-Banks is one of several experts far from the Washington, DC studio. She is being fed in remotely from NBC in Chicago. A visitor, standing in the corner of the studio, is not wearing a headset and so cannot hear the rest of the program being broadcast live. Wine-Banks sits serenely still, not knowing whether or not she is visible on camera, listening through her earpiece for her cue to comment. Suddenly she begins to talk, eloquently expressing her perspective on the topic at hand; then she’s silent again until the next opportunity to surprise the visitor. One is reminded of watching the faces projected on Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain, waiting expectantly for the lips to open and the water to flow on the laughing children waiting at the base for their shower.
Wine-Banks’ total airtime is less than 5 minutes on this broadcast, but over the past two years, she has provided hours of astute observations to a gamut of MSNBC anchors, from Andrea Mitchell to Chris Hayes to Lawrence O’Donnell and more. Unlike many MSNBC guests, Wine-Banks is not a reporter from the Washington Post or the New York Times. Her special expertise comes from her earliest career choice 45 years ago.
Wine-Banks in 1973.
A graduate of the University of Illinois in communication studies and Columbia University Law School, Wine-Banks (then Wine-Volner) headed straight to Washington, DC where she joined the United States Department of Justice as the first female attorney in the organized crime section. Hired by Archie Cox for the Watergate trial team in 1973, she would participate in one of the 20th century’s most famous hearings and trial. She was the assistant prosecutor who cross-examined President Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rosemary Woods, about the infamous missing 18 1/2 minute gap in the White House audio tapes. The evidence her team uncovered and turned over to the House Judiciary Committee led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Given her pioneering role as a female prosecutor, it was not surprising that her mini-skirts drew as much attention as her legal skills.
In 2016, Wine-Banks was a fellow at Ragsdale, the artists’ community north of Chicago, where she worked on a memoir about her Watergate experience. In May 2017, inspired by the current public discourse on impeachment, she followed a friend’s suggestion and took a workshop on writing Op Ed pieces. The following Tuesday FBI Director James Comey was fired. She had her first topic. And she did not mince words:
As one of three assistant special prosecutors who tried Watergate’s obstruction of justice case, I know obstruction when I see it.
Wine-Banks saw parallels to her experience when President Nixon had fired her boss, Archibald Cox:
Interference by the president in an investigation that could possibly implicate him is an obstruction of justice, a cover-up and a violation of his constitutional duties. It is an abuse of presidential power and just one of many parallels between Trump and Nixon. It must be seen for what it is: an impeachable offense.
The Chicago Tribune published her essay on May 11, 2017 and her phone started ringing. Within a month, she was interviewed on all the major networks and cable stations. Within weeks, MSNBC offered her a contract to join their team of legal analysts.
Her newfound fame has given Wine-Banks national visibility, but between Watergate and the Trump presidency, she has hardly been out of the spotlight. Whether as the Pentagon-based general counsel for the U.S. Army, a trial lawyer with Chicago’s Jenner and Block, Illinois’ deputy attorney general, the COO of the American Bar Association, or a senior executive for Motorola and Maytag, Wine-Banks has been willing to assume highly visible challenges outside her comfort zone. “I was actually never risk-averse…and I credit my husband Michael for encouraging me to jump in.”
Michael Banks with Jill Wine-Banks.
Banks, an Evanston-based appraiser and nationally known expert on Asian and tribal art, says his wife has never shied away from adventure. “A friend had married an Indonesian head-hunter’s daughter and suggested he could arrange for us to experience a genuine head-hunters’ wedding. We headed to Borneo where as part of the ceremony, Jill had to go through a washing ritual in a field full of water buffalo,” he fondly recalled.
Banks has been as surprised as his wife by her new television career. “ I joined her downtown for an early appearance; little did we know it was not a one-shot deal! Now I can’t wait to get home to see her on TV. Her whole life has pointed to something like this.”
To a viewer, the MSNBC panel format may seem straightforward: experts are booked to be questioned by the host and to comment on the news of the day. But for each contributor, it’s a major commitment to be available for even brief appearances. As an MSNBC legal analyst, Wine-Banks is sent a tentative schedule a week in advance for appearances on any of the MSNBC programs. Whether or not she actually appears depends on breaking news and the show producers’ final shaping of the guest list for each program. Her appearances can be cancelled or requested at the last moment. To be ready, she must continually keep up to date on national politics. Her broad ranging sources include the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Hill, Politico, and many more. Fans and friends like fellow Chicago Network member Christie Hefner continually send timely articles.
For each appearance, Wine-Banks selects her wardrobe carefully. “Since I’m only seen from the waist up, I frequently wear workout pants or jeans, but with a suit jacket or blouse on top. I finally pick out a brooch from my collection. Men often wear a flag pin and I wanted something more distinctive.” Wine-Banks has worn pins for years, but now her fans send them. In fact, MSNBC had to ask Jill to set up her own post office box since the studio was flooded with her packages. Her husband notes that some days their dining room table has been covered with hundreds of pins. For this program, she wears the “Prosecutor’s To-Do-List” pin. Serious pin fans are asking her to write a book about her brooches and she’s picked a fan’s suggestion for a title, not yet announced. Her chosen pin in place, she gets into the car sent by the studio and during the ride downtown from Evanston, has a 30 or 40 minutes to check for breaking news.
Part of the pin collection.
Once at NBC, it’s time for make-up and maybe a cup of tea in the last 30 minutes before the show. “I’m listening to MSNBC so I don’t repeat what’s been said on the previous show. Sometimes news breaks just before I’m on the air.” Even while NBC make-up artist Maria Blanco is fluffing her hair, she can’t put her phone down.
NBC make-up artist at work.
Finishing touches before heading to the studio.
In the 10’ by 12’ studio, just the right size for a camera and a small desk, cameraman Dave Durham outfits Wine-Banks with a microphone and earpiece. She hears a feed of the show’s audio and any comments from the producer. “I don’t watch what’s on the air, but I know I can be called on at any point in a segment ….the challenge is to never look away from the camera in case I’m shown. It’s hard because I can’t take notes on what someone else is saying.” She also can’t see any charts or graphics included, which she sometimes she regrets when she watches the show later.
In the NBC studio.
Wine-Banks describes herself as a pragmatic idealist. “I’ve been very lucky in my upbringing, my parents, my education. I believe I have an obligation to give back, trying to make sure the political system takes care of everyone. At the same time, I’m a realist and support policies that have a good chance of being implemented. That why I supported Hillary over Bernie in 2016.”
Wine-Banks says she was a shy little girl, but that shyness is long gone and she loves meeting people, from cab drivers to clerks at Costco who thank her for her opinions. “Invariably someone recognizes me –so I now always wear lipstick at least when I go out. I originally thought I’d be a journalist, so this has been a wonderful experience.”
She is well aware of how polarized today’s media habits can be and regrets that she doesn’t reach a broader audience. “I realize my fans probably don’t watch Fox TV, and I wish I could reach the Fox audience. I think I’m logical and not over the top. I’d like to be able to convince people of what the facts actually are.”
It’s a good guess that Wine-Banks’ Watergate experience will continue to be relevant for months to come. In the meantime, what about that memoir? Say tuned. There’s another chapter to write.