One of the greatest professional compliments I’ve ever received came in the form of a frantic email last month. Gwen Ifill was the long-standing host of “The HistoryMakers” series of interviews on PBS with prominent African Americans. But the co-anchor of PBS’s “NewsHour” and moderator of “Washington Week” would not be able to do the taping in four days time with former attorney general Eric Holder “due to a conflict.”
The request from Julieanna Richardson, the founder and executive producer of “HistoryMakers,” was as simple as it was daunting: Would I fill in for Ifill? This was one of those OMG moments where you are at once thrilled by the confidence in your abilities the invitation connotes and freaked out that you won’t measure up. See, you don’t fill in for a journalistic giant like Ifill. You try to prepare as thoroughly as you know she would. You work hard to try to come off as effortless and as comfortable before a live audience as you know she would be. You pray you do half as good a job as you know she would. And you hope that you have done her proud.
The significance of the request to stand in for Ifill would not be revealed until Nov. 14. On that day, the black woman who broke down barriers for African Americans and women in journalism and helped others on the path behind her passed away after a year-long bout with cancer. The public personality endured a health crisis only known to a tight circle of family and “sistah friends.” Ifill’s life was remembered and celebrated at her church, the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church on M Street in Northwest Washington on Nov. 19.
I first met Ifill, then at NBC News after having blazed trails covering national politics at The Post and the White House at the New York Times, at a mutual friend’s wedding in the 1990s where she and I danced our butts off together. And she did so with such exuberance that I never forgot her joyful smile. I would see her at this and that over the ensuing years and we’d talk about dancing together again one day. Not until I moved to Washington in 2007 did I join Ifill’s limitless reserve of mentees.
As Michele Norris said at the memorial service, she “would always tell you about yourself” and never shied from saying “you can do better.” Twice, a crisis of confidence pushed me to call her with an emergency request to get together. Each time she said yes. And after each gathering filled with reality checks, tough love and laughter, I felt stronger, walked taller. Ifill was a North Star. To emulate her professionalism and treatment of others was to be on the right side of life.
Holder reminisced how his and Ifill’s friendship, buttressed by their shared familial roots in Barbados, led them to call each other “cuz.” But even he marveled at how Ifill never let the personal get in the way of doing her job. “She was fair but she was piercing,” Holder said, “serious but unfailingly nice, smiling the whole time as she forced me out of my prescribed talking points.” He learned what viewers had come to appreciate about Ifill. She was a journalist who strove for answers and truth, especially from those in power, in a manner that maintained the dignity of her guest and her audience.
That’s why so many of the speakers bemoaned her passing. They weren’t simply mourning a loved one, a friend, a confidant or a mentor. They also were mourning the loss of a clarifying voice at a time when our nation’s politics are scrambled and societal bonds are frayed thanks to a presidential campaign that scratched at racism, xenophobia and misogyny and presidential appointments that reinforce divisiveness.
In celebrating his sister’s life and her example, Roberto Ifill issued a powerful call to the journalists, politicians, activists and concerned citizens who packed the pews. “I pray you have a little Gwen in you,” he said.
Trump’s ascendancy decimated everything I thought to be true about so many things in American politics. To say that I was despairing would be an understatement. But I left Ifill’s memorial service just as I had after those meals with her. I felt revived and ready to do my best to follow the example she set. I felt stronger, walked taller. I just pray I do half as good a job as she would have done. And I hope I do her proud.
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