Farewell to the Irreplaceable Gwen Ifill
The skillful host of ‘Washington Week’ was a smart, tough-minded journalist who many knew as a great friend with a warm and genuine curiosity about anyone she met.
A bad month gets worse. Gwen Ifill, simply one of the best political journalists in the country, has died of breast cancer at age 61.
She was best known as the host of Washington Week, the PBS show that aired Friday nights out of the WETA studios in northern Virginia. It was a great public-affairs show that never declined, never went down to the high-decibel-but-low-candlepower level on which so much of television news-talk exists.
I knew Gwen pretty well, but I also knew that friendship or not, I’d never be asked to be on Washington Week. Gwen didn’t want gaseous pontificators like me. She wanted reporters, the people who covered Congress, the agencies, the bureaucracies (there’s a reason it was called Washington Week). She’d have people on from the big papers, of course. But often enough she’d have people on from the trade papers. If that week demanded a reporter who was particularly expert in energy issues, then someone from one of those papers might get the call. No one screamed, and everyone talked respectfully and knowledgeably about politics and policy. That was Gwen.
It can’t have been easy to do. Yes, public television is insulated from ratings pressures to some extent, but even public television has had to adapt. That’s a good piece of TV real estate, 8 p.m. on a Friday; one would hardly be shocked to learn that some of the suits would rather have been using that slot to show Riverdance again. But Gwen held her turf. It had to be tougher still for a black woman to do so, one of the first to reach the pinnacles of the profession.
I remember first laying eyes on her at a 1992 press conference in Chicago. I don’t even remember who was having the press conference; it was something to do with the presidential campaign, as I’d flown out there to cover the Illinois primary. I didn’t know her then; I just knew her byline, because if you’re a journalist you pay attention to who’s covering Bill Clinton for The New York Times. Anyway whoever it was who was holding the press conference, she asked that person a smart, sharp question. Huh, I thought. That Gwen Ifill, she seems smart. Keep an eye on her.
Then I met her here and there over the years, and then, when I moved to Washington in 2003, I soon learned we had another connection. My wife and her brother sang (still sing) in a choral group together. Gwen came to all the performances, and she and I would amble over to each other to chat at intermissions, about politics, chats frequently interrupted by people coming up to shake her hand and thank her for the seriousness of her journalism. She was always gracious, by which I mean she talked to them, asked them questions about themselves. And while this part is out of my league, she sure seemed to know a lot about choral music, too, bantering with the singers about which Britten piece was the hardest to sing and so on.
One time, the right tried to get her. She was moderating a vice-presidential debate in 2008, between Joe Biden and ++Sarah Palin ++ [http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/06/26/sarah-palin-takes-credit-for-donald-trump-s-rise.html]. She revealed that she was writing a book on the younger generation of post-civil rights movement black leaders. That included, of course, Barack Obama. The Drudge Report and the rest of them pounced—Moderator Writing Pro-Obama book.
In truth, the book was only partly about Obama. It was also about three other African American politicians of Obama’s generation, and it was in the works long before the commission named her moderator. She had also revealed it, while her attackers tried to suggest she’d hidden it. So she returned fire: “I've got a pretty long track record covering politics and news, so I'm not particularly worried that one-day blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation. The proof is in the pudding. They can watch the debate tomorrow night and make their own decisions about whether or not I've done my job.” She played it right down the middle, and after the debate, the chair-throwing looked stupid.
This is a year when journalists have taken quite a pounding. As a collective beast, maybe the media deserve it. Or some of it. We don’t deserve lugenpresse. That’s just ignoramo-fascism. But there are great journalists around. And some of them are wonderful people, too. Gwen was both, and now more than ever, Washington sure needs both.