What were they thinking?

The PBS News Hour devoted most of tonight’s show to remembering the life and work of Gwen Ifill, who died today of cancer.  No one mentioned my favorite of her routines, “What were they thinking?”  The one I remember best was from her other show, Washington Week.  In December 2002 Trent Lott “honored” Strom Thurmond at his farewell birthday party.  Lott, who was supposed to become Senate Majority Leader in the next session, reminded the assemblage that his state of Mississippi had voted for Thurmond’s third-party, segregationist ticket in the 1948 presidential election, adding “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”  After reminding her audience of the platform on which Thurmond was running, Gwen just asked of Lott: “What was he thinking?” She did this out of the blue at the very end of the show, when I thought it was over.  Very deadpan, with none of the rhetorical flourishes that Rachel Maddow might use today.

Lott had made his remarks on the Saturday before, December 5, 2002.  One week later, the day after Gwen did her piece, on December 12 President Bush scolded Lott for making remarks that were “offensive” and “wrong.”  On December 20 Lott stepped down as incoming Senate Majority Leader.  I’m sure that there were many more forces at work to make Lott accountable for what he said, but it always seemed to me that Gwen had fired the kill shot.

Laura had introduced me to Washington Week in Review when we started living together in 1994.  Back then the show was moderated by Ken Bode, and as the name implied it focused on reviewing media stories during the preceding week about events in Washington.  Gwen had moved from the New York Times to NBC News in 1994.  Over the next few years I remember her appearing more and more frequently as a panelist on the show.  In 1999 Ken Bode was fired as moderator, and Gwen was named as his replacement.  There was some speculation at the time that she had pulled off a coup. I tend to believe the publicly stated reasons that the powers-that-be just wanted to have a more lively, less wonky show.  However, I must admit to raising my eyebrows when the name of the show was changed a few years ago to Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.

For most of our marriage Laura and I sat down on Friday evening at 8 pm to watch Washington Week.  Anne Mei did not appreciate losing our attention.  When she was old enough to walk, as soon as the show started she would walk around the room with her pull toy that popped balls into a round plastic dome, quite loudly with every turn of the wheel. It was hard to hear anything, much less a complicated political analysis.  We began to hide the popper on Friday evenings.

Washington Week under Gwen’s leadership helped us navigate Clinton’s impeachment, September 11th, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq.  On the News Hour tonight a number of her colleagues mentioned Gwen’s ability to pierce through b.s. and her “look.”  I’ll always remember the way she calmly demolished the NPR reporter Tom Gjelten early in the Iraq war.  Gjelten had been one of the reporters pushing the Bush propaganda about weapons of mass destruction and about how taking out Saddam Hussein was going to be a cakewalk.  As the war started to unravel, Gwen just quietly repeated back to Gjelten what he had said before and what was now patently not happening.  I’ve seen her cut panelists off rather abruptly when she had had enough of what they were saying, but that incident with Gjelten was the only time I remember her leaving a panelist stuttering.

Laura and I stopped watching Washington Week regularly in late 2007 when we were turned off by its obsession with the 2008 presidential election to the exclusion of anything else going on.  After Laura’s cancer diagnosis in August 2008, we had other things on our minds and needed to watch lighter fare on television.  Ironically, I only started watching the show recently because of my obsession with the 2016 election.

When Gwen’s absence from Washington Week and the News Hour became longer and longer earlier this year, I began to worry, especially since there was no explanation.  I harrumphed to myself about the lack of transparency from someone who would demand more information from any other public figure.  Gwen’s consistency on such principles clued me that something very serious was going on about which even she would grant herself privacy.  Gwen’s return to both shows and then sudden absence again reminded me of the period when Laura was able to return to work for a few months.  Both women were committed professionals who would not let a thing like cancer keep them off the job.  I’ll miss Gwen, not just because she’s been part of the fabric of my life for the last 20 years, but because she also reminds me of Laura, who also could stop you dead with a softly spoken remark or a look.

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