On March 24, 2016, seven months and three weeks before she died, Gwen Ifill sent out a tweet. “Thinking of writing something about meanness,” it said. “Thoughts? (Kind ones, please.)”
The following day, she wrote a column about that tweet and her own thoughts on the subject.
Before Gwen worked for NBC and Washington Week and the PBS NewsHour, she was a print journalist. She wrote for the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Baltimore Evening Sun — and the list goes on. And after she made the switch to broadcast journalism, she kept writing. There was of course her book, “Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.” But much of her writing came in the form of a column she wrote for Washington Week and the NewsHour: She called it Gwen’s Take.
She wrote on the art of the apology, on revisiting the Anita Hill hearings years later and on the two sides of the gun debate. She wrote about the soundtrack of the musical Hamilton, which she listened to “backwards, forwards and on shuffle.”
In one column, Gwen gave tips on how to moderate a general election debate. The trick, she said, is “to be alert enough to notice when your question goes unanswered and nimble enough to decide what you will do about that on the spot.” (She then shared her own on-the-spot decision, when neither John Edwards or Dick Cheney could answer her question on the rise of HIV infection among black women in the U.S.)
In another, she wrote about the March on Washington, and the quarter million people gathered on the National Mall to watch Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Among them was her father, who boarded a bus with other African-American preachers to be there: “Where others heard only the humility and conciliation in Dr. King’s speeches and writings,” she wrote, “my Dad heard the call to action. So that’s what his children heard too.”
She wrote about her love of politics: “It is about whether your child will be fed,” she said, citing a speech she’d delivered when receiving the 2015 Urbino Press Award. “It is about whether your parents can afford long-term care. It is about whether you have a roof over your head. Or, perhaps, whether your son will be able to survive his next encounter with police.”
And she wrote a whole lot about the importance of listening: “It’s an approach we could use more of, especially in times of grief, confusion and political distress.”
Four years ago, on the anniversary of the death of Tim Russert, Gwen wrote a column about Russert, who she called “a mentor, an encourager, a political nerd with a passion for getting questions answered, and a fine man.”
“We could not have known,” she wrote, “that his absence would leave such a big hole. Sunday mornings are not the same. Election nights are not the same. Somehow, he made regular folks understand Washington more, and hate politics less.”
The same, of course, could be said for Gwen.
In the final year of her life, Gwen reflected quite a bit in her columns on the presidential election. She spoke of the head-snapping nature of the 2016 campaign and how quickly we had come to accept it. She appealed to Americans: Listen more, she said. Speak for yourself. Lean away from fear. She saw in the campaign a sharp spike in intolerance, and, she said, “plain old meanness.”
Gwen’s March 24 tweet calling for thoughts on meanness drew dozens of responses. She listed several of them in her column, “How mean can we get,” and she offered her own. She asked us to examine our culture of meanness, one that elevates snark over substance. She worried we had crossed into dangerous territory in which “the distance from disagreement to violence and blame has been short circuited.”
“Call me the last living optimist,” she wrote. “I think most people strive for kindness, even though we sometimes fall short.”