Amid the loud crush of political pundits forever clamoring for our attention, Gwen Ifill has provided an oasis of clear-eyed calm and common sense as a reporter and, for the past decade, as moderator and managing editor of PBS's Washington Week. She made time to chat with O while racing to finish The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, her first book, to be published on Inauguration Day.
O: What was your first thought when Barack Obama was elected?
Ifill: I thought of my parents, who didn't live to see the day, and how they would have been transported by the moment. And then I got back to work.
O: What moved you to write The Breakthrough?
Ifill: My theory was that Obama was unique, but he wasn't alone—that there was a treasure trove of black politicians who approach politics differently than their forebears. The hardest part was that things kept changing. I was literally in the middle of writing a chapter about Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, the only black governor in America, when I looked up at my TV to see that Eliot Spitzer had resigned and David Paterson had become the first African-American governor of New York state.
O: How did you respond to the charges that writing this book would affect your objectivity as a PBS reporter and as moderator of the vice presidential debate?
Ifill: They ignored that I've been a reporter for 30 years, that I did a debate in 2004 and no one complained. People seized on the book as a way to discredit me, but I don't think it worked; people with any knowledge of my career rejected it out of hand.
O: What made you decide to become a political journalist?
Ifill: My family was very engaged in the world around us. My father was an African Methodist Episcopal minister and an immigrant from Panama. He was deeply involved in civil rights causes, which scared my mother—she was also an immigrant, from Barbados, who had her hands full with six kids, and she worried that my father would get deported. But because of his passion for politics and civil rights, we paid close attention to current events. We would watch political conventions together—for fun!
I knew early on that I wanted to be a reporter, but I didn't know I was a political journalist until my first job in Boston, in the '70s, covering the public school committee at a time when busing was a huge issue. Children's lives were being directly affected by political decisions, and that's when I realized that everything is politics.
O: Do you think of yourself as a breakthrough figure?
Ifill: Well, you want to be the first, but not the last—I'm sure Condoleezza Rice has the same problem. I just keep my head down and try to accomplish what my parents set out for me: that there wasn't anything I couldn't do. But I also look up periodically and think, "Who else can I pull along?" Because it's a failure if I'm up here by myself.
O: What do you do to unwind?
Ifill: If I can just sit quietly in a corner with a good reading light and a novel that takes me on a journey, I can sink into that place for hours.
O: What have you read recently?
Ifill: Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, was perfect: I could read one story, feel like I'd traveled to another place, and then go back to work. I listened to Stephen L. Carter's novel Palace Council while driving to work: half an hour in, half an hour back, which was great. I've also been reading memoirs: Helene Cooper's The House at Sugar Beach and Sheryll Cashin's The Agitator's Daughter.
O: What do you know for sure?
Ifill: That I am a blessed woman. Even when I am the most stressed, the most frazzled, God always rescues me, pulls me along, calms me down. I might fret over little things, but if it's something big—like losing a parent—I can handle that with grace and calm and certainty. It's still grief, but it's not as if I've been abandoned. What I know for sure is that I'll never be abandoned.