Jan 26, 2010 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
Journalist also takes questions and signs new book earlier
“I learned how to cover race riots by telephone,” begins Gwen Ifill’s “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.” She signed copies of the new book in the lobby of the Maxwell School of Citizenship on Sunday afternoon, between her afternoon talk and Q&A there and her keynote address that evening at Syracuse University’s annual, sold-out Martin Luther King Dinner in the Carrier Dome.
“They didn’t pay me enough at my first newspaper job to venture onto the grounds of South Boston High School when bricks were being thrown,” she continued. “Instead, I would telephone the headmaster and ask him to relay to me the number of broken chairs in the cafeteria each day. A white colleague dispatched to the scene would fill in the details for me.”
Since those days at the “Boston Herald-Journal,” Ifill has gone on to reporting for the “Baltimore Evening Sun,” “The Washington-Post,” and to covering the White House for “The New York Times” and network television. In 1999 she went to PBS, where she’s now managing editor of Friday night’s “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for the nightly “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.” You’ll also see her sometimes on “Meet the Press” and last year she moderated the election campaign Vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.
Random House approached her about writing the book, she related to the Maxwell audience of students, faculty and community members, because they thought he’d be the first Black president. Ifill punctuated her talk with a loud laugh.
“‘Never happen!’ I said. That’s why I’m not a pundit. But my counterpunch was that I wanted to write about my generation, about the age. My parents marched, got new laws on the books, and raised kids in such a way that their children took them seriously.”
Ifill said her generation then encountered older people who still held those jobs, which led to friction.
“In order to break through,” she noted, “you had to know that you didn’t wait your turn.”
Ifill’s book profiles direct beneficiaries of the 1960s: Newark, New Jersey mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, and Alabama congressman Artur Davis. On Sunday Ifill said Davis is now running for governor of Alabama, and “That’s what I call the true audacity of hope! But he can lay out how he’ll do it and how it’s possible to win.”
“I found incredible cynicism among the Black establishment about these people,” she went on. “Who were they? Are they Black enough? Too Black? And what about breakthrough Black women candidates? Almost always they had already achieved something when they ran for office — or they chose other ways to lead. What was most interesting — and there’s an afterword in the paperback edition about this — was the ‘beer summit’ and how so many people have wanted to call Obama ‘post-racial’ or to ask, ‘Do we have to call Barack Obama Black?’ But why would we not want to call him Black? We always make it about conflict. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh darn! I’m Black again!’ I revel in that.”
Ifill’s audiences when she talks about the book, she says, are about one-third regular PBS viewers, about one-third African American non-fiction readers “who are so happy to read something where they’re not being told what to do,” and one-third “young folks who never watch PBS — but they watch Jon Stewart, they watched the Vice-presidential debate last year, or they watched Queen Latifah play me on ‘Saturday Night Live’.”
Then Ifill opened the floor to questions, noting that she learns the most when she hears questions from people outside Washington, DC, where she lives and works.
Don, a journalism student from the Newhouse School, asked whether a new transparency born of the Obama administration means “we will now demand more of our leaders and stay away from self-appointed leaders.”
“Well, somehow only African Americans need to be led,” noted Ifill, adding that Jesse Jackson won 13 primary contests in his 1988 race for president.
“He didn’t get credit for what he did,” she noted. “And he was very liberal, unlike many African Americans. There has also been frustration among many African American liberals and the academic left, that Barack Obama somehow has failed to be a ‘Black leader.’ But like many similar politicians of his generation, he had chosen to lead more subtly.”
Ifill answered a young woman’s question about shaky trust in government by saying that the momentum of a campaign always wanes.
“Change in hard, really hard. Leadership is how you manage what happens next — not coasting along on the momentum.”
Another woman asked about the politics 0f fear.
“I do think fear is a potent driving force in our decisions,” said Ifill. “In politics and beyond. But I’m a Pollyanna. I don’t immediately go to what divides us, and if you only look to Washington, you’ll miss something.”
Another woman asked whether the American Dream has changed with Obama’s election.
Ifill said, “His family is the American Dream! An intact family, lovely wife and kids, a dog — but more and more people fear they can’t attain it. You know, Bill Clinton used to say that we all want our children to do better. We are built on this notion of possibility.”
Another woman asked Ifill, “Why does it matter what color he is? Color has nothing to do with so many issues.”
“I wish I could agree with you,” said Ifill. “But you should read his first book. It’s the most intimate and honest meditation about race that we’ve seen from any politician. And he’s chosen to identify as African American, it’s what he married into. He never calls himself ‘bi-racial.'”
One audience member said she was surprised by Ifill’s chapter on race and gender, in which recount gender as a bigger barrier than race.
“Shirley Chisholm said that,” answered Ifill. “She talked about how men were very demeaning to her when she ran for president. I never got a choice — I’m both! I do think there was a lot of bitterness in last year’s campaign, that a lot of people thought he [Obama] cut in line, and that didn’t really change until she [Hillary Clinton] took the lead in showing she would fully support him.”
Asked her assessment Sarah Palin from her vantage point as debate moderator last year, Ifill said, “I’ve done it with Cheney and Edwards too. You have 90 minutes to cover domestic and foreign policy. I sat there for weeks with hundreds of questions on cards on my dining room table. Is it your job to chase them around the table or do you invest in the audience at home? I could follow up with, ‘How could you not know?’ but that takes up time. When she said, ‘I don’t have to answer your questions,” I was determined not to make it about me.”
Asked about the direction media is taking, Ifill insisted, “The media is not one thing. Calling it ‘the media’ is just lazy. It’s up to you. You have access to research at the click of a mouse. There’s really no excuse to say, ‘I didn’t know that’ anymore. Keith Olderman doesn’t do what I do. We don’t do the same thing. Glen Beck and Oprah Winfrey don’t do what I do. But they all interview candidates. And the difference between commercial television and public television is not just that there’s no commercials. It’s also about time — the time to investigate and to tell a story.”
The Q&A wound up with a pair of questions about whether there could be a breakthrough for Black candidates in the Republican Party and whether Obama’s election inhibits his chance to communicate about race.
“Good question!” Ifill responded to the former. “When I was doing the book I looked for Republicans to profile. I interviewed Michael Steele [now Republican Party national chair] and he said he was disgusted. At the Republican convention there was just a handful of Black delegates and they would embrace me, thinking I was one of them, until they found out I was the evil media.”
Asked whether there is a gap now between Obama’s honesty in Dreams of My Father and what he can say about race from the presidency, Ifill noted, “He can still communicate but he was able to have perhaps a lot more candor as a private citizen. As president you have to speak for everyone. He does talk about the ‘Joshua generation’ — the ones who come after Moses. For him, that doesn’t mean always leading with fists — or race.”
Ifill stopped promptly at four o’clock and patiently signed books in the lobby for another half hour. Carrier Dome opened at five sharp, and Ifill appeared later at the podium before the sold-out crowd of over 2,200 people for the keynote address. Her speech echoed the more informal give and take of the afternoon session, with some anecdotes re-told and a lengthy excerpt from King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” about the old advice to “wait.”
“He was making the case for expectation,” she said. “We should expect to be treated fairly.”
Ifill’s prescription for breakthrough, she said in summation, involved these points.
“Never take no for an answer. Pick your battles. Resist those who say you’re not ready — you are more ready than they are. Politics is not the answer but a set of core beliefs is the beginning. Change is hard, really hard, but listening is harder.”
A version of this story appears in the 1/28/2010 print issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. Nancy Keefe Rhodes usually covers the arts. Reach her at email@example.com.