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Commentary: Remembering Gwen Ifill

PBS NewsHour, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Prominent political journalist Gwen Ifill died Monday at the age of 61. Ifill was the first African-American woman to host a major political television talk show, when she took the helm of Washington Week in Review in 1999. In 2013, she was named co-host of PBS News Hour. Murray State University history professor and commentator Dr. Brian Clardy reflects on his personal connection with Ifill and her legacy.

Remembering Gwen Ifill

by Brian Clardy

This has been one of the most tumultuous presidential election seasons that I can ever remember. The country is divided and the tension is so thick that a buzz saw just might make a dent in it…..maybe. But whether you voted for the Democratic nominee or the Republican President-Elect, there is one thing on which most Americans can agree: Gwen Ifill was a journalist par excellence.

Many of us remember her work as a journalist for NBC and later with PBS. She was the moderator of two vice presidential debates and she was the face of two preeminent shows in the business: “The PBS Newshour” and “Washington Week.”

She was a tough minded anchor who asked deep and probing questions of policy makers. Moreover, she always sought to uncover the “story” BEHIND the story. She was a very fair and balanced political pundit who often held policy makers’ feet to the fire.

And she put Washington-speak on a level to where people with only a passing interest in politics would sit up and pay attention.

I had the pleasure of meeting Gwen on several occasions as I visited Washington, DC.

It was January 1995 and I had been chosen to moderate the C-SPAN in the Classroom Seminar for Professors. Back then I was on the faculty at the University of Tennessee at Martin and heavily involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. So the Sunday morning after I had arrived in Washington, I visited Metropolitan AME to hear Dr. William DeVeaux preach. He had run for Bishop in 1992, eventually getting elected later. But I considered him a powerful homiletical genius without peer or rival. So this Sunday service was going to be a special treat…….and it only got better.

As I sat in the pew, I thought I saw a familiar face, but being raised properly I was always taught not to stare. But I did it anyway. She looked familiar.

During the “passing of the peace,” I asked this familiar face a question: “Are you Gwen Ifill?”

She said, with a smile, “Yes I am.”

We struck up a brief conversation about the 1994 Republican wave election and she mentioned that she had a brother in Georgia who was a Presiding Elder.

The next few times, I visited Washington and Metropolitan AME, I would always bump into Gwen Ifill. Charming and warm, always loving the give and take of a political discussion, it was apparent that she enjoyed doing the hard work of democracy.

My last time seeing Gwen was at a huge distance as she sat in the PBS news booth as an anchor (along with Judy Woodruff) at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Once again, she was hard at work, bringing to her public the stories and the stories behind them. She was the consummate political professional.

Her death comes at a terrible time when the country that she loved is polarized over the outcome of the election.

Maybe this is the chance for Americans of all stripes (Democrats and Republicans/liberals and conservatives) to remember the wonder and mystery of American Democracy. And maybe this is the chance for our nation to come together to remember a journalistic icon... someone who gave her all to her profession… and her country... even up to the last days of her life.

Fare thee well, Gwen.

Dr. Brian Clardy is an assistant professor of history and Coordinator of Religious Studies at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. His academic research hs been published in "The Tennessee Historical Quarterly," The Journal of Church and State," and "The Journal of Business and Economic Perspectives."
Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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