In 1973, when MSNBC legal analyst Jill Wine-Banks went by the name Jill Wine Volner, she was an assistant special Watergate prosecutor working for Leon Jaworski, who was investigating a rat’s nest of criminal shenanigans emanating from Richard Nixon’s White House. Beyond the unwelcome attention paid to her mini skirts, Wine Volner became something of a celebrity among legal eagles when she debunked a cover story Nixon’s henchmen had cooked up for the president’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods.
“I just got a new Pinocchio, which can fit almost any day in the life of Donald Trump, so that’s always a safe one.”
The debunking occurred during Wine Volner’s cross-examination of Woods before the Honorable John J. Sirica. Wine Volner had asked Woods to demonstrate how 18 ½ minutes of potentially damning dialogue between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, had been accidentally erased. When Woods failed to replicate the office gymnastics required to depress the foot pedal of a Uher 5000 tape recorder while reaching behind her to answer a telephone, Wine Volner was able to show that Woods’ story was, in a word favored by the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, bullshit.
Actually, Woods was her own worst enemy that day in U.S. District Court. “In a dramatic Perry Mason moment,” Wine-Banks says of the scene in the courtroom, “her foot came off the pedal and the tape stopped moving—no erasure. But Woods insisted she had done it in her office just as she had testified, so I suggested a demonstration in the White House.”
That led to a pair of famous photographs, both taken on November 27, 1973. The first shows Woods at her desk executing a move that would soon become derisively known as the “Rose Mary Stretch.” The second shows a beaming Jill Wine Volner leaving the White House, secure in the knowledge that all who had witnessed Woods’ performance were struck by its implausibility. Lest there was any doubt, a technical appendix to the subsequent 1974 impeachment report prepared by the House Judiciary Committee noted that “a distinctive set of magnetic marks is made by the Uher tape recorder when stopped and restarted by the foot pedal,” and that no such marks had been found on the 18 ½-minute gap.
While some who saw that photo of a triumphant Jill Wine Volner were no doubt fixated on a different gap—the space between the bottom of the assistant special prosecutor’s skirt and the top of her boot—in hindsight the more revealing fashion detail has proven to be her brooch. As a pundit for MSNBC, Wine-Banks has become well known for her brooches, which she selects to add colorful commentary to her observations born of decades of legal experience. “I hope I’m not wearing pins that are as obvious as campaign-buttons,” she says. “I’m trying to wear pins that have hidden meanings to them, even if the meanings aren’t always that hidden.”
By comparison, the brooch Wine Volner wore on November 27, 1973, was, well, meaningless. “It was a very pretty, old-fashioned-looking opal brooch pinned to my ascot,” Wine-Banks recalls. “In those days, a lot of women wore pins that way. I bought my opal pin at a store called the Tiny Jewel Box on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.,” she adds.
As some fine jewelry collectors may already know, this is the same jewelry store where former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously shops. Like Wine-Banks, Albright has a penchant for pins, which she wore to send subtle messages to her diplomatic counterparts when she was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State during the Clinton administration.
“I’ve read her book, Read My Pins, front to back many times,” Wine-Banks says, whose own book, The Watergate Girl, recently landed in bookstores. “I only met Secretary Albright once, briefly at a Hillary Clinton campaign event, but we have since exchanged conversations on Twitter. She sent me a copy of her book, which of course I already had, but this one is inscribed: ‘To Jill Wine-Banks. With appreciation for your service to our country. I love your pins! Best wishes, Madeleine Albright.’”
Today, pins have become such a part of Wine-Banks’ persona, she can’t get dressed for that day’s television appearance until she’s settled on the right brooch. “It used to be that I’d get dressed and then pick out a pin to complement what I was wearing,” she says. “Now, every day before going to the studio, I have to figure out the right jacket to go with the pin I’ve selected. It complicates getting dressed, I will say that.”
Take the Pinocchio pin she wore on February 5, 2020, the day President Trump was acquitted in the Senate after being impeached in the House. For that pin, Wine-Banks chose a light blue suit. “Wearing a Pinocchio #JillsPin for the many lies 45 told last night in his State of the Union address,” Wine-Banks posted on her website. Or take the gold “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys she wore on January 23, 2020, during the impeachment trial itself. That pin, she posted, “is aimed at Republican Senators who are shutting their eyes and ears to the facts in plain sight.” For the monkeys in various states of denial, Wine-Banks selected the same suit.
Turns out, Wine-Banks’ predilection for message pins such as the Pinocchio and the monkeys is fairly recent, although it grew out of a shift in her taste for jewelry that began in the 1990s. “I started wearing costume jewelry because I was traveling a lot for work,” she explains of her years as a vice president of Motorola and then Maytag. “I felt unsafe carrying my real jewelry with me. But when I started getting more compliments on my costume jewelry than my real jewelry, I started selling the real pieces and collecting the costume, especially Trifari and Boucher. I’ve probably bought something by every designer,” she says, “but if you look at my collection, many of them are by Trifari or Boucher.”
Wine-Banks’ interest in message pins began shortly after May 9, 2017, when FBI Director James Comey was fired by President Trump, the act that triggered the hiring of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. “I had written an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, which generated a lot of calls from television stations. So I went on the air. To my surprise, they liked me and invited me back.”
“Every day before going to the studio, I have to figure out the right jacket to go with the pin I’ve selected.”
Wine-Banks had noticed that many of the men she saw on TV, whether they were commentators or politicians, wore flag pins. “I thought it was sort of a hokey, predictable way of showing patriotism,” she says. “I had a wonderful, vintage, celluloid pin of an eagle with a shield that read ‘Defend America.’ I had bought it before I ever started wearing message pins, but I thought ‘This will be my symbol of patriotism.’ After I wore it on TV, someone on Twitter immediately asked, ‘I love your pin. Could you tell me something about it?’ I answered them and thought, ‘Gee, if I’m sending a message through my pins and conveying something in addition to my words, maybe I should look at my collection and see what else might work.’ At first, I wore things I already owned, but then it became a passion to find more pins that could be interpreted by viewers. Before I knew it, people started sending me pins. The people who send me pins,” she adds, “are extraordinarily clever. I’ve gotten some really, really good ones from viewers.”
Wine-Banks has also found sources to make new pins for her. “I’ve ordered a number of pins from an Etsy seller called Woke and Bespoke, which makes 3D-printed pins. Recently, I sent them an email asking if they had a can of worms. They didn’t, but they made one for me that came out beautifully. During the Mueller investigation, they did a 3D-printed pin of the word ‘Trump,’ in which the ‘U’ took its shape from a Russian hammer and sickle.”
In addition to Etsy and pins sent to her by fans, Wine-Banks accumulates pins at the sorts of places you’d expect to find a serious collector. “I go to the Grayslake Flea Market north of Chicago. I go to the Broadway Antique Market closer by. The Randolph Street Market; that’s another great place. I go to house sales, basically anywhere I can possibly find pins. I’m always looking. And my husband, Michael Banks, is now looking for pins, too. He’s an antiques dealer, so he’s found some good ones.”
All of Wine-Banks’ pins, regardless of their source, are stored in around 30 shallow drawers, each of which holds anywhere from 10 to 30 pins, depending on the size of the pins and the width of the drawers. When we spoke over the phone, Wine-Banks told me she thought she had around 300 message pins, but as she did a quick inventory, it immediately became clear that the number was more like 500, at least.
“It’s impossible to predict how many are in any one drawer,” she says with a sigh. “I just opened one at random. It says ‘Hard To Pull’ on it. The cases aren’t all that well-made, but they are labeled—Fruit, Flowers, Leaves, November, Blue, House, School, Scouts, Puzzles, Chaos, Holidays, Seasonal. Here’s Witches; that was a big one for a while. So was Clowns.”
Each pin can certainly be admired for its appearance, but they all are in Wine-Banks’ collection because they have something to say. “I have quite a lot of dragonflies,” she says. “Apparently dragonflies are symbols of hope. And I have a lot of butterflies because there’s a butterfly sanctuary in Texas. If Trump’s border wall is actually built, the butterflies will not be able to get over it because they cannot fly that high. The wall would destroy their habitat.”
Not surprisingly, this plethora of pins contributes to an expectation among Wine-Banks’ fans to see what she’s wearing with each new appearance on TV. For the most part, Wine-Banks’s appearances are shot at a local NBC affiliate in Chicago, which means her pin stash is close at hand, but when she has to travel, her pins make going on the road a bit complicated.
“When I go to New York for a week of television,” she says, “I do have to think about what to bring. I may need 10 pins for the week. The hard part is predicting what the news of the day will be. Because that’s not always possible, I always take a few safe, neutral pieces, like Lady Justice or an American eagle. I have a number of those, so I always carry a few of those in case I don’t have something that meets the news that day. But I just got a new Pinocchio,” she adds, “which can fit almost any day in the life of Donald Trump, so that’s always a safe one to bring.”
The appearances she’ll make to promote The Watergate Girl, Wine-Banks says, will likely be simpler, at least from a pin perspective. “I can wear the same pin more than once because the people I speak to in New York won’t be the same as those who see me in D.C.,” she explains. And once that book tour is over? Well, Wine-Banks knows exactly what she’s going to do next. “I’m going to start on a book about the Trump administration through the eyes of Jill’s pins,” she says. “A Twitter follower gave me a great title, but I want to keep it a secret until it’s printed.”
Shorter term, Wine-Banks has one other event she’s very much looking forward to—the presidential election on November 3, 2020. “It’s more important than ever that people vote in November,” she says. “Even if your candidate isn’t the one who gets the nomination of the Democratic Party, you cannot sit this one out. Otherwise, Donald Trump will be re-elected and will continue to get away with his crimes.”
Naturally, Wine-Banks has a pin selected for that date. “It’s one of the pins I got in the mail. Someone wanted me to have it. It’s a tiny watch attached to a fob, as if to say ‘Trump’s time is up.’ I was hoping to be able to wear it after the impeachment trial, which was beyond painful to watch, but I guess it’s going to have to make its debut in November. I cannot wait to wear that one.”
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