When Gwen Ifill ran into bumps and detours in her newspaper career, editors often invoked a phrase she found maddening.

"There always seemed to be someone who'd say, 'You're not ready,' " Ifill recalls. "My black friends all heard the same thing--this veiled, murky 'not ready' thing. So you go someplace where someone sees you are ready."

Now Ifill has been deemed ready for the biggest leap of her career, her debut tonight as the host of "Washington Week in Review." The advertising campaign--"TV's Voice of Reason Has a New Face"--doesn't mention that Ifill is the first black journalist to moderate the 33-year-old program, or the first black woman to host any political talk show of this stature. It doesn't have to.

The odyssey of this preacher's daughter, from a poor childhood in church parsonages to the latest star in the PBS firmament, is about persistence, religious faith and a disarming frankness. But it is also about the festering issue of race in American society. Before she was on television, Ifill says, she sometimes got a chilly reception in person from sources who had been friendly on the phone.

"You don't transcend being black," Ifill says. "There ain't no such thing. You broaden someone's stereotype of what it means to be black. There are people who get nervous when you bring up the subject of race because we're schooled in this country to think it's a negative. I always think of it as a plus."

ABC reporter Michel McQueen, a close friend, says Ifill has never been part of the old boys' network and that the hard-boiled newsroom culture had trouble adjusting to her style.

"Gwen is very feminine and graceful in her demeanor, but she's not a pushover," McQueen says, adding: "She doesn't use profanity. She doesn't yell at people. It takes people a while to understand that she communicates in a different way."

Ifill's grace was on display during the potentially messy transition from NBC correspondent to "Washington Week" savior. She turned down the job last February because she was upset at the abrupt firing of her predecessor, Ken Bode, who balked at a WETA-TV executive's suggestions for infusing the low-key program with more attitude and opinion.

When PBS approached her again--this time offering a second job as national correspondent for the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer"--Ifill negotiated her way out of her NBC contract. "She's a wonderful, classy lady and a great journalist," says Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief. "She understands the flow and the nuance of politics. She doesn't play gotcha, no cheap shots."

Relaxing in her Northwest Washington home, which is filled with African art, Ifill says she wants to return the show's focus to beat reporters who can chat about being on the scene. And she wants to add "a little bit of zip" to a program that, while beloved by its older audience--three-quarters of which is over 50--sometimes seems stodgy.

"We're going to tweak the format . . . The challenge is to be smarter and more thorough but not bore people to death," says Ifill, 44. "People love personality on TV. That's where I come in."

If the former newspaper reporter seems preternaturally calm under pressure, religious faith is part of the reason. "I think God is watching out for me," says Ifill, who attends the Metropolitan AME Church downtown.

McQueen, describing her friend as always showing up with flowers or food in time of crisis, says Ifill has quietly brought others back to the church. "I've been to church with her when her father was alive," McQueen says. "She had a public presence even then. She knew how to carry herself in public."

Ifill's father, who emigrated from Panama, was a pastor at a series of African Methodist Episcopal churches, constantly moving his Barbados-born wife and the family. O. Urcille Ifill was a black nationalist who instilled racial pride in his six children.

After spending her early years in New York City, Ifill moved to a federally subsidized Buffalo high-rise (when she covered the Housing and Urban Development Department, she figured she was the only beat reporter who had actually lived in public housing). Ifill also lived in church parsonages in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, part of a childhood of old clothes and ragged shoes.

"We were very conscious of the fact that we didn't have any money," she says. "I make more money in a week than my father made in a year."

While attending Simmons, a Boston women's college, Ifill was hired as a Boston Herald intern. "They didn't know what a college-educated black woman was and they didn't know how to treat me," she says.

One day, a staffer left her a note in the photo lab that said "Nigger go home." But the racial slur turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for the editors were so apologetic that they hired Ifill after her 1977 graduation.

Next stop was Baltimore, where Ifill spent three years covering Maryland politics for the Evening Sun and became a regular on a Maryland Public Television panel show. "Gwen had star written all over her," says Everett Marshburn, now a station vice president. "It only surprises me that it took this long." In Marshburn's view, race "played some part" in delaying her success.

Richard Berke, a New York Times reporter who covered city hall with Ifill at the Sun, says then-mayor William Donald Schaefer would often throw tantrums at meetings with reporters. Ifill, he says, "would stand up to him. She'd hold her ground and ask tough questions. She was unflappable."

After joining The Post in 1984, Ifill covered Prince George's County, Annapolis and then national politics. When she began appearing as a "Washington Week" panelist, moderator Paul Duke pointed out that she talked too fast for the program's graying audience.

Ifill says she left The Post in 1991 after editors told her that she wasn't ready to cover Capitol Hill. She jumped to the New York Times, which made her a congressional correspondent and later assigned her to the White House.

Post Associate Editor Robert Kaiser says Ifill was viewed as "a wonderful asset to the paper. . . . We didn't want her to interpret any specific personnel decision as some negative assessment about her. . . . We were really sorry when she left."

But Ifill also ran into frustrations at the Times. Editors grew unhappy with her White House coverage and decided to remove her from the beat during a stressful period when her mother was dying. "I felt at the time I wasn't getting the personal support I needed," she says.

Suitors were again waiting in the wings, as NBC, CBS and ABC all courted Ifill in 1994. She says she was pursued because of her track record, and that "bonus of bonuses, I'm a black woman."

Ifill easily made the transition as NBC's Hill reporter, working with a voice coach and tightening her writing. But she was not a superstar.

During the impeachment drama, says journalist Mickey Kaus, who runs Kausfiles.com, "Gwen very competently summarized the conventional wisdom you'd already been hearing all day. She didn't really move the ball." But he also credits her with "a certain sassy, cynical, feisty style."

Ifill discovered another obstacle: "If a hurricane was a story of the day, maybe something important was happening on the Hill--maybe there was a campaign finance vote--but that will never get reported." The networks, she says, "are pretty bored by Washington."

Needless to say, "Washington Week," which reaches 1.6 million households, doesn't suffer from capital fatigue. "We have loved Gwen for many, many years," says Sharon Percy Rockefeller, WETA's president. "She just seemed like the right person, the right fit at the right time. Our core audience loves her, and she has a very good chance of attracting a new audience, perhaps a younger audience."

Gwen Ifill was at a party not long ago when a former boss gave her an unusual greeting.

"The last time I saw you," he said, "I was naked."

Conversation halted as all eyes turned to Ifill.

"Was I there?" she deadpanned.

Ifill, who sometimes misses the relative anonymity of being a print reporter, senses that her life may be about to change. Friends marvel that she's still single, which she blames in part on 22 years of deadlines.

"How can I say this so I don't turn off every man in Washington?" she asks. "I don't know why I'm not married. I just know I will be, so I don't sweat it."

In some ways Ifill dwells in the Other Washington. She prefers to hang with a small circle of friends, cracking crabs, seeing movies and cheering at Washington Mystics games.

"I don't want to say this the wrong way," Ifill says, pausing for the first time. "I don't want to change my life to be friends with people who weren't my friends before."

CAPTION: GWEN IFILL. . . ready for prime time