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Remembering Gwen Ifill

Remembering Gwen Ifill

Gwen Ifill was such a force that a full moon drew closer to Earth on her last day of life. It’s one of those twists in the cosmos that seem to bend for our best writers. Mark Twain had his Halley’s Comet. We say Shakespeare died on his birthday. We also witness this phenomenon in American politics with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying on the same day, July 4.

What I didn’t know until after she was gone, was that on Election Day, Gwen was presented with a dire choice. And it had nothing to do with who would sit in the Oval Office. Instead, doctors at Johns Hopkins told her she could die at home or in a hospice center. She asked if there was a different ending, always looking for a chance to edit.

Gwen chose her words carefully, even when faced with an early deadline. You can see the depth and life she could give a story by looking back at her coverage in the New York Times of Bill Clinton’s campaign and the early days of his presidency.

“America is in a sour mood,” was her lead sentence on November 3, 1991. “The discontent is more complex than the polls can convey. Across the country, the sense that the nation is on the edge of bad times colors daily life.” Tolstoy on the trail.

We’re a happy family at the PBS NewsHour, but happy in our own way. Gwen ensured that each year started off right, opening up her house on Jan. 1 to offer us luck and wealth by serving black-eyed peas and greens, and a bit of humility when you saw all the other dear friends she cultivated in her life.

This week, to help make sense of her passing, I’ve turned to poets whose words have stood the test of time. And I found solace, if not yet comfort, in this line from Ovid’s Metamorphosis:

Our misery would have no guilt;
Our lot we’d need to mourn, not hide;
Our tears would never bring us shame.

Fate brought us together and allowed us to be friends. I just wish I could sit in the control room and whisper through a microphone into her ear, “You have more time.”


Remembering Gwen Ifill
Gwen Ifill takes the stage before moderating a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in February. Morry Gash/AP

Gwen Ifill, one of the most prominent political journalists in the country, has died, according to PBS. She was 61.

When she took the helm of Washington Week in Review in 1999, Ifill became the first African-American woman to host a major political TV talk show. Ifill covered seven presidential campaigns and moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. More recently, she moderated a presidential primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Ifill was also the best-selling author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.

In 2013, Ifill was named co-host of the PBS NewsHour. In an interview with The New York Times, she reflected on what her appointment could mean to a new generation.

“When I was a little girl watching programs like this — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of color,” she said. “I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy [Woodruff] sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal — that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”

Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, said Ifill was “a fundamental reason public media is considered a trusted window on the world.”

The Dalai Lama answers questions from moderator Ifill in October 2010 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center luncheon in Cincinnati. Al Behrman/AP

“Her contributions to thoughtful reporting and civic discourse simply cannot be overstated,” Kerger said. “She often said that her job was to bring light rather than heat to issues of importance to our society. Gwen did this with grace and steadfast commitment to excellence.”

In a news conference, President Obama said he appreciated Ifill’s reporting even when she posed tough questions to him.

“She always kept faith with the fundamental responsibility of her profession, asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work,” Obama said.

Journalist Ray Suarez, who began working at NewsHour on the same day as Ifill in 1999, told Here & Now that Ifill was a mix of things.

Gerald Seib (left) and Gwen Ifill go over the news before filming ABC’s This Week at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in December 2008. Kevin Clark/The Washington Post/Getty Images 

“She was evenhanded yet tenacious,” Suarez said. “She was exteriorly cool, if that’s even a word, but at the same time very emotionally and passionately committed to the work she did.”

Ifill was a preacher’s daughter. She was born in New York City to a Panamanian immigrant father and a Barbadian mother. She started her journalism career as a print reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Boston Herald American. She went on to become a national political reporter for The Washington Post and the White House correspondent for The New York Times.

Ifill died after a battle with cancer.

NPR’s Neda Ulaby contributed to this report.