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What Gwen Ifill meant to us

November 14, 2016 at 6:45 PM EDT
The news of Gwen Ifill’s death has left a void in the world of journalism and politics. Judy Woodruff and Hari Sreenivasan speak with a few of her friends and colleagues about her legacy and what made her so beloved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re joined now by some who knew Gwen well, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a colleague and friend of Gwen’s and a longtime member of our “NewsHour” family, John Dickerson of CBS News, also a regular panelist and occasional host for “Washington Week,” Kevin Merida, a longtime colleague and now with the Web site ESPN’s Undefeated, and Amy Walter, also of our “NewsHour” and “Washington Week” families. She’s with The Cook Political Report.

This is a tough night for all of us. I know you each are — have so much you want to say about Gwen.

I’m going to start with you, Kevin Merida, because I think you have known Gwen the longest in this group. Tell us about meeting her.

KEVIN MERIDA, ESPN’s “The Undefeated”: Well, it was incredible.

I was a — I was editor of a black publication at Boston University, a black student newspaper. And we did a piece on Gwen, because here she was, this hot shot journalist right out of college who got hired by The Boston Herald-American.

And for many young black journalists or aspiring black journalists, we didn’t know many people like Gwen. And so she felt a little bit like a unicorn then. And so we became friends after that. But that was my first introduction to her.

She was a wonderful friend, obviously, and inspired many of us throughout our careers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John Dickerson, you met Gwen on the campaign trail covering politics, and then you became friends.


I mean, all I have been thinking about today is her smile.


JOHN DICKERSON: You could read by the light of Gwen’s smile.


JOHN DICKERSON: And it felt sort of like it greeted you before she did.

And she was a tough, great journalist. When we were in the company of other journalists, her question was always the one that just kind of cut through the fog and sometimes was a little impolitic.

But the thing I will remember first is just what a great and warm person she was and how, whatever mood you were in before you were with Gwen, you left it with joy in your heart. And, in Washington, there is not a lot of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s for sure.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, you were obviously a regular right here on the “NewsHour” for many, many years. And you have known Gwen for a long time.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, PBS NewsHour Special Correspondent: I have known Gwen for a long time, but I had left to go to Africa to live and work by the time Gwen got to the “NewsHour.”

And what’s so amazing is that, you know, she’s of a generation younger than mine, but I, as an older-generation journalist, used to look back on Gwen for inspiration, because, as everybody has just said, I mean, she knew how to cut through the you-know-what.

And yet she maintained such an air of professionalism. She didn’t put people off. She welcomed them into her space. But, at the same time, when she got to the “NewsHour,” she was already doing what we believed in, and that was to present news that could be used by people, so that, if they got good information, they would make the right decisions about how to live as a good citizen in a democratic nation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Amy Walter, you have done so many of these Politics Mondays just in this most recent cycle, but you have known her for much longer.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What is it about her political acumen, her skill that all of these folks are talking about, the ability to cut through the…

AMY WALTER: I’m so glad that you asked that, because that’s what I was trying to remember, too.

It’s, honestly, very hard sitting at this desk and not having her across from me. Her love for politics and her love for the process of it is what I have always admired about her. She wanted to do the stuff that a lot of journalists didn’t want to get to, right, because it’s a lot easier staying on the surface. It’s a lot easier to go for the shiny objects.

And she wanted to really get into it, what does it mean, how did we get here, which is why it was such an honor for me to work with her and work with this show, so that, every time I got on, I felt better and smarter for that.

And you can see, too, with everybody who is talking here, she created a family around her of all of these people. And she — I felt like we were a little menagerie, that she put together all these incredible people and took care of all of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Merida, you talked about meeting Gwen early on and what a — I think you said unicorn, how rare it was to see an African-American journalist succeeding as early as she did.

She told me the story — and I assume she told you — about first time at the Boston newspaper, what happened to her. Do you remember that story?

KEVIN MERIDA: You know, I remember there was some — I don’t remember the specifics.

But she was in Boston. We were both in Boston at the same time. It was a really racially tense city then. I had been an intern at The Boston Globe. And anybody who worked at Boston newspapers back in that day, and you were African-American, many times, you felt like you were kind of under this racial — almost racial terror sometimes.

And it was really difficult to do the job. The fact that she was able to be in the newsroom, reporting in Boston at that time, was extraordinary, in and of itself.

And I think she was always one that, in each level of her career, there were never obstacles that she was going to allow to block her. And that kind of professionalism and the ability to wear success well was awfully inspiring, as we both watched each generation, you know, new, young journalists come up and look toward her for that model.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Judy, yes, I remember what the incident was, because I was speaking at one of the many awards ceremonies Gwen was being honored.

And I looked it up. And a co-worker had written to her, “N-word, go home.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. Right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And she had to survive that and prosper and not pay a lot of attention to it.

At the same time, let me very quickly say that, while you and Gwen were noted for becoming the first two women to anchor a news program, you know, Gwen identified as a woman, she identified as an African-American, and she identified as a human being.

So, she brought all of those things to bear in becoming one of the many consciences of the news business and the “NewsHour.”

I mean, she championed my series Race Matters looking at solutions to racism. She used to send me little notes encouraging me. So, she could be all of those things and still reach out in a universal way to people, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John Dickerson, she had a reputation, as you point out, to be tough on both — in the field, as well as debates that she’s moderator. Even the president pointed out that she was tough, but she was fair.

JOHN DICKERSON: Yes, that was her reputation.

And, you know, even with journalists, she — you know, there is a thing that happens sometimes when journalists get together and everybody kind of gallops along, sort of saying the same — believing in the same thing.

And Gwen often kind of would say, now, wait a minute. And, sometimes, it was kind of pointed. And that was because she was always questioning what was going on.

And when you prepare for “Washington Week,” in the conversation before the show, you could always expect that, whatever fancy thing you had polished up and thought was so brilliant, that she would, you know, puncture it in — not in a mean way.


JOHN DICKERSON: But she wasn’t going to let you just get by with something that sounded good and maybe had a couple of clever phrases in it.

On the other hand, if you could get her to laugh and hear her laugh, that was a special joy. It wasn’t a chuckle. It was a laugh to be remembered and to fill up an entire room.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And with an office right next to hers, John, that is what I guarantee you I am going to miss the most.

Amy Walter, but talk about that. I mean, you have talked about how much she loved politics and she wasn’t satisfied with the surface. I mean, but she was always on a quest to get more and — but to do it in a way that wasn’t so…

AMY WALTER: And to do it — that was joyful.


AMY WALTER: And that, I think — sometimes, we, especially in the political press, get so cynical about the same candidates and the same promises and the same election year after year.

But she always had a — just a joy in covering it, a responsibility in covering it, but she also believed that we could make it better, right? We could be smarter about this, and that we didn’t just have to live with whatever was put on the table by others.

And, you know, going on John’s point, too, I mean, she didn’t suffer fools at all, no matter…


JUDY WOODRUFF: No, she did not. She did not.

AMY WALTER: No matter who you were, you have been caught in the Gwen look of…

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of us — all of us have experienced this.


AMY WALTER: Have gotten the Gwen look.

But it’s because she truly believed in the process itself that she could cover it so well. You don’t have to believe that everything is going to work out perfectly in covering politics, but you have to believe that the process is important. And she did.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kevin Merida, one of the things that you pointed out earlier, for young journalists of color who were coming up at the time, and even today, she has been a role model throughout her professional life.

KEVIN MERIDA: You know, she always made time for people. She was never too big. You know, achievement never got away from her.

And she understood what people went through. And she was very helpful in letting other young journalists know her story. And she brought people together. I mean, many of the panelists know that she had a really well-received open house every New Year’s Day.

And I watched over the years how that open house got bigger and bigger, and because she let more and more people into the circle because she thought it was also important to bring people together. And that was one of the ways, among many others, that she did that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, talk a little bit about what she meant to journalists of color, to people of color.

I would be with her walking down the street or in a restaurant or at an airport. And I would see the immediate connection that she had with all people, but there was — of course, because she had fans across all the spectrums.

But there was a connection for her in the African-American community that was really — it was really remarkable.


And I remember, when I spoke at the National Press Club when she was honored there with their highest award, I talked about how she reminded me a little bit of Viola Davis, because, when she went through, there weren’t a whole lot of women even then, when she began to achieve national recognition and status.

And she would look across that line, like Viola Davis said, and reach out to bring others in. So, she inspired those she met. But she also inspired those just by her appearance and by her competence and her extraordinary capacity to do all the things that you have heard all of her colleagues, old and new, talk about.

The other thing about Gwen was, they say that she could give you a look. And that was true.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But she was not full of herself.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, we — the last time — and I’m so glad I had this moment with her on Martha’s Vineyard this past summer, with Michele Norris, the NPR correspondent.

The three of us were at dinner. And she just sat back and let us yammer and talk and chat. And we would say something, and she would say, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” And she would pick up a pen and start writing it down to remind herself to look at that.

And we were talking about something else, and she went right on her phone and said: “No, that’s not right. It was such and such and such a thing.”

But she was humble, even as she presented this very strong and powerful person. So, I think that what young African-American people saw in her was what they could be. And it was a wonderful. And I could see what I could be, even being older than she.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, I’m just saying that she appealed to all generations in the most wonderful way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John Dickerson, she also seemed to be a journalist that was willing to continue learning.

I mean, she didn’t take to Twitter quickly, but, once she got in, she was in, and the world knew about it.


JOHN DICKERSON: Well, she had to be somewhere to tell everybody about “Hamilton” and every song that she was listening to.


JUDY WOODRUFF: I was waiting for somebody to bring that up.


JOHN DICKERSON: Well, I felt as though I had to do it for Gwen. Talk about a woman who didn’t throw away her shot.

She was an enthusiast, you know? She was an enthusiast about Twitter, although skeptical at first, you know, because — in part because I think she probably thought it was just a place for people to just kind of toss off opinions that might not be considered.

But then, when she took to it with her normal enthusiasm — and that enthusiasm, as we said, often was in the form of either glory to “Hamilton” or lyrics from it — it was just a perfect venue for her enthusiasm to come through.

And that’s what I think about all today, was just her enthusiasm in all of its different forms. And, certainly, in the new world of social media, it was there, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Merida, I want to come back to you on, you know, we — all of us lived through journalism changing rapidly. Twitter is a part of that.

How did you see Gwen adapting as journalism changed right in front of all our eyes?

KEVIN MERIDA: Well, she grasped it like she did everything. It was a challenge and something interesting for her.

And I would see, sometimes, I would tweet something, and then she would come back with an even pithier reply, you know?

One of the things that — I remember we were talking about debates — and she certainly did the vice presidential debates and the Democratic primary debate. But I was an advocate for her that she should have been in one of the presidential general election debates as a moderator.

And I remember writing that, you know, early on. And she sent, “I love you, Kevin Merida,” you know?


KEVIN MERIDA: And it was just a little funny, you know, rejoinder.

But I think that she was so accomplished and so well-regarded by so many other people, but, for her, she always wanted to keep learning and getting better.

And, as Charlayne said and others, she was willing to learn from others. She just soaked up — the passion in her for knowledge was just amazing.

AMY WALTER: And she was that rare competitor in — at least in Washington, that wasn’t moving ahead by putting somebody else down.

KEVIN MERIDA: That’s right.

AMY WALTER: If she was going to get the moderator job, if she was going to get the big interview, she was going to get it because of the work that she did, not because she made somebody else feel bad or pushed them down in any way.

And that, especially in this town, is a remarkable — first of all, it’s been a remarkable gift for so many of us, but it’s not something that you see very often.

KEVIN MERIDA: So incredibly classy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I would just say, in our final minute with you and Amy Walter and John Dickerson, I know Gwen really hated, when I talked to her, missing covering the end of this amazing, one-of-a-kind presidential campaign. That was hard for her to miss it.

AMY WALTER: To not be — to not spend an election night — I have spent a lot of election nights with Gwen Ifill.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Judy, can I just — can I just say one final thing?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fifteen seconds. Sure.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And I hope — I hope I don’t cry.

But I saw her on the air one night, and she looked so amazing. And, at 10:00 at night, I couldn’t help but write to her. And that’s when she wrote me back and told me how — what she had been going through.

And I think that’s another thing that we should absolutely think so highly of her, because she worked through all of her illness without letting on to anyone about what was going on.

The “NewsHour” would say, she’s away, and everybody thought she was away working. And she was suffering mightily. And she bore it with such grace.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Thank you, Charlayne.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, Charlayne.

Absolutely, she was a pillar of strength for everybody out there and for all of us here at the “NewsHour.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Kevin Merida, John Dickerson, Amy Walter right here, we thank you all.

KEVIN MERIDA: Thank you.

AMY WALTER: Thank you, Judy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now more remembrances of Gwen from Rick Berke. He’s executive editor at STAT News, and worked with Gwen at The Baltimore Evening Sun in the 1980s. Pete Williams, he is justice correspondent for NBC News, where Gwen and he used to cover Congress and politics. Karen Tumulty is national political correspondent for The Washington Post. She and Gwen covered the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign together in 1988.

Reverend William Lamar IV is pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. He has known the Ifill family going back decades. And Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times, Gwen was a mentor to her.

Pastor Lamar, I want to start with you. You knew Gwen in a way that none of us at the table did. Besides the church every weekend, coming up through the church, the Ifill name meant something.

REV. WILLIAM H. LAMAR IV, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church: Indeed.

Gwen’s father was the secretary-general of our denomination. So, all official denominational literature and statistical reports carried his name.

So, I don’t remember a time not seeing or knowing the Ifill name. And as I came through the ranks of ordained ministry, her brother, Presiding Elder Earle Ifill of the Atlanta North-Georgia annual conference, was a tremendous voice and leader in our denomination.

So, when I had the privilege of pastoring her, I knew her pedigree and knew her ancestry.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And she was a woman of deep faith.

REV. WILLIAM H. LAMAR IV: Oh, she was there every week. She was generous. She was loving. She was accessible. She was a mentor. And little girls could come to her and hug her, and she would share and she would encourage. She was a great gift to our community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rick Berke, you were — as we just said, you knew Gwen going back to the 1980s as a young reporter. Tell us a little bit about that.

RICHARD BERKE, Executive Editor, STAT: Gwen and I covered City Hall together 35 years ago at The Baltimore Evening Sun. Then, years later, we covered the White House together at The New York Times.

So, we have covered a lot of politicians together. And she had them quaking in their boots.


RICHARD BERKE: I mean, she would look at them, and they would be intimidated, from mayors to presidents.

But it was because she was whip-smart, she knew what to ask, and she was relentless. But she would always come back with her big smile that would just melt everyone. So, she was tough, but she was accessible. And she always knew what she was talking about. She would be able to synthesize the news in a way no one else I have ever seen was able to.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Pete Williams, what about your time at NBC News?

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC News: I think you also have to say, not only was she a great person of faith, but she loved to sing. Right?


PETE WILLIAMS: She was a great singer at church and everything else.

I was at NBC when she came there. Those of us in television would say it’s very difficult, what we do, but she made it look very easy. She made the transition very quickly from print journalism to television.

And, today, I went back and looked at one of her first appearances on NBC in 1994. And it takes a while to get sort of the odd little things, the way we put stories together, but she had that spark, that smile. There was a lot more hair then.


PETE WILLIAMS: A lot of us had more hair…


JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of us did.

PETE WILLIAMS: But that spark that drove “Washington Week,” that made politics interesting, but fun, you wanted to pay attention to, because you felt you would learn something in a pleasant way. And she had that even then.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen Tumulty, as Hari said, you knew Gwen even before Pete did. You covered the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1988.

KAREN TUMULTY, The Washington Post: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was that like? You were two women covering from different news organizations.

KAREN TUMULTY: And months on end trapped in airplanes and buses.


KAREN TUMULTY: It’s extraordinary — and I think Rick would agree — that, even in those — 30 years ago, there was a presence to Gwen that you would very much recognize in Gwen today. She was grounded. She understood that she was there looking for the facts and looking for the truth.

And I do think, though, when she did make that transition to television, one of the reasons that she was so successful at it was that I just always felt like her honesty just came right through that lens.

PETE WILLIAMS: I think a lot of journalists look for answers about themselves, but I think Gwen knew who she was. And that is something that always came through and was a — I am from Wyoming.

And I was at a hardware store in Jackson, Wyoming, a couple of summers ago, and the man who checked me out said, “Boy, you must really be special that Gwen Ifill would have you on.”


PETE WILLIAMS: And I told her — I said, “You are big at Ace Hardware in Jackson, Wyoming.”

And, of course, that was a big thrill.

KAREN TUMULTY: I ran into a pit boss in Las Vegas.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We have all got stories like this.

KAREN TUMULTY: I was over at a presidential debate. And as I walking through the casino — but the pit boss goes, “Gwen Ifill.”


RICHARD BERKE: The thing about Gwen, you talk about a transition to television. She was resistant for months, if not years, to go from The New York Times to television, because she would always say: “I am a journalist. I am a journalist.”

TV, forgive me, in her mind, wasn’t always journalism. But she’s the one who carried over the tradition of fine reporting, and not punditry. Don’t ever call her a pundit, because she would shriek at that. She wanted to talk about the news. And the people on “Washington Week” would talk about stories, not…

KAREN TUMULTY: Because they were actually covering them.



JUDY WOODRUFF: Yamiche — go ahead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yamiche Alcindor, I want to bring you into the conversation.

How did you meet her? How did she mentor you?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, The New York Times: I met Gwen Ifill under a hair drier.


YAMICHE ALCINDOR: We had the same hairdresser. And I was telling my hairdresser so much stuff about wanting to be a journalist. And she said, “You should really meet Gwen Ifill and her — and one of her really good friends, Adalia.”

And I basically endeared myself to both her and her friend Adalia. And from that moment — I was about 19 when I met her — she mentored me and her friends mentored me. And they really welcomed me into what I learned later was really like a circle of black women who were in news and were living in D.C. at the time, because I went to Georgetown.

And to come full circle, she spoke at my graduation. And that was the first time that I remember thinking, like, wow, I could really do this journalism thing. It was 2009. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to have a job. And to be able to see her, to be able to steadied by her voice as I was walking across the stage really meant something.

And one of the first memories I remember of, like, us actually talking, I told her: “Hi, my name is Yamiche, but you can call me Niche if you want to.”

And she said, “Well, do you like being called Niche? Like, what do you want to be called?”


YAMICHE ALCINDOR: “Don’t let people give you nicknames.”

And it really stuck with me, because she was telling me then — and I think something that holds true now — like, be who you are. Be very steady in what you believe and be an honest journalist. Know your name. Know what you want people to call you and really believe in that.

And for my entire career, which hasn’t been that long, she has really been someone who is not just — not just someone I could admire, but someone who would watch my “Meet the Press” interviews.

I remember the first time I was going to be on “Meet the Press.” I called her, somewhat frazzled, saying: “I’m going to be doing the show. Like, what do I do?”

And she was like: “You know what you’re doing. You know the information.”

And to have someone like that, to have someone of that caliber want to give back to you, and then to speak to me, I thought, meant a lot to me, because it showed me that not only was she someone that I wanted to imitate, but she was also someone that taught me to also bring other journalists that are younger than me up.

And that is something that, even in my busiest days, I try to remember that she took the time out to talk to me, so I need to take the time out to talk to other people.

So, I am just devastated by hearing of her loss, because I know that I’m not just — we’re not just losing a journalist, but we’re losing someone who has really believed in mentoring journalists coming behind her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pastor Lamar, you talked about Gwen mentoring younger women at the church. What was it about her? How did those connections work?

REV. WILLIAM H. LAMAR IV: Well, I think it’s important to say, Judy, that Gwen comes from a long line of women who had great dignity and great grace in the midst of turmoil and tumultuous situations that would shrink the average human being.

So, she comes from Barbados, the West Indies, and there’s a great tradition of excellence, a great tradition of making sure that you make your presence known and your gifts are used.

And so, coming from Barbados, being a part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has always been an incubator of excellence for persons of African descent, and what I appreciated about Gwen is, as she rose in stature and prominence, she didn’t abandon the institutions that had shaped and created her.

So, she strengthened the church by her presence and by her participation, when she was able, taking the battleground when necessary, offering financial gifts, offering mentorship, always a smile.

And I just think she was incredibly graceful, incredibly stern, and just a joy to be around. We talked about books. We talked about food. We talked about travel. And she could expose all that she had done and the persons that she knew in a way that wasn’t off-putting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She often talked about being a P.K., preacher’s kid.


And I was teasing that many preachers’ kids do not turn out to be the most well-adjusted…



REV. WILLIAM H. LAMAR IV: And many of them abandon the church, because it can be a very painful existence for children.

And Gwen’s love of the church and her faith wasn’t something that was cordoned off in a personal kind of piety kind of situation, but it moved her into the world to make the world a better place, a more truthful place.

And what I am amazed about is the number of deep personal relationships that she was able to maintain. The persons who have been gathering today as she was with us for her last moments, she touched them in deep, deep ways. And I felt that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rick Berke, one of the things that she said about being a preacher’s kid is that it actually put her into different situations over and over again, as she had to move, which is traumatic for a young person. But she figured out a way to get comfortable in these situations.

RICHARD BERKE: She knew how to make people comfortable and just to talk truth to people.

But I think one of the things I have learned about Gwen through the last year is — that’s so inspirational to all of us — and, Judy, you have seen it close up — is her resilience in dealing with health issues, but never shrinking for one second from doing the debates and the convention coverage.

And the toughness and the drive and the energy it takes to do her job was nothing short of inspirational.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Only about a minute left, but Pete and Karen, she — and we heard Amy Walter say this in the last panel — she — Gwen really wanted to be a part of covering this election. And she fought hard.

It wasn’t meant to be. She wasn’t there at the end. But she hung in as long as she could.

PETE WILLIAMS: And how much we would have — how much we would have benefited from her analysis.

The thing that strikes me is, you know, a lot of people in Washington, as they become successful, they shed their old friends and move into upper circles.

Not Gwen. She added to them and just kept adding to them. And I would pick up on your point there about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are just incredibly grateful to all of you, to all of you for being here with us on this day that we never wanted to have arrive.

Yamiche Alcindor, thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Pete Williams, thanks to you.

Karen Tumulty, Rick Berke, and Pastor Lamar, thank you all.