Gwen Ifill

Politics, Policy and the Reality of Leadership - March 31, 2011

Gwen Ifill
March 31, 2011— Ames, Iowa
Mary Louise Smith Chair
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Ifill spoke at Iowa State University as the Spring 2011 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.

Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here. I feel like I have to start by saying that, Dianne will tell you that it’s true that we’ve tried to get here a couple of times, and each time something comes up so finally she employed my best friend, Michele Norris. Michele was like, “But you have to go.” I said I know I know I have to go. I’m going to go. I’m going. I’m going. “No but they’re really nice there. They really treat you well.” And so before Michele sicced her children on me I decided I would have to come. I am thrilled to be here. I’ve had a lovely day today. I’ve been already talking to students and finding out things and trying to pick everybody’s brain about 2012, and don’t think I won’t do it to you, too. Because I love coming back to Iowa. There’s always something fun, and I want you to know, Iowa State was where Washington Week came. Maybe some of you were there in the year 2000 where we did show with an audience program here on campus. It was the first time we’d ever done anything like it, and it was really kind of exciting because that’s when I discovered David Broder was such a rock star here. Everywhere he went people just followed him around. Finally, I felt like I had to be the go between, but it was it was great. I’m glad to be here. Mostly because I’m happy to be out of Washington. Gotta get out of the bubble every once in a while, and it’s also good to come to Iowa in the spring. It’s slow coming but it beats January. So I thank you.

But I’ve been discovering that it’s been getting harder and harder for me to get out of Washington, out of town, out of my job to travel and talk to people especially on college campuses like this because the news business, as it is now configured, has become such a 24/7 proposition. Everywhere you look it seems there are earthquakes and tsunamis and fires and war and uprising. Then there are elections, which offer their own kind of chaos, which I’ve come to appreciate and like because not only do I get to indulge my junky-like addictions to politics, but I also get to ask all the questions that I like, of whom I like, and to do it in a way that takes me, and I hope you, beyond the sound bite.

On Washington Week and the News Hour, we approach the news with a fairly simple premise. We assume that you—it’s going be shock to you, it’s novel—we decide that you can decide what you think if we just give you the information to work with. We’re not to be confused with cable television. We hope you never know what we actually think, or that we ever reach any personal conclusions about anything at all. You don’t really want to stand behind me in line to vote. It takes a long time. But we believe that you are hungry to know things. That the rigors of daily life have not yet managed to entirely obliterate the need for information that occurs beyond the end of your nose, beyond your neighborhoods, beyond our borders.

I covered my first presidential election in 1988. I have to tell you this story of that. I was the lowest person on the totem pole at the Washington Post and so therefore they would send me out to cover whoever was about to lose. So I would walk into a nice union hall here or somewhere in Iowa, and there would be Dick Gephardt or Bob Dole and they’d go, oh no. It’s the angel of death. But never since then have I experienced or did I expect to experience a presidential election like we all experienced and that I covered in 2008, where everything seemed to be at stake, so much all at once. We covered the debates, the first, the breakthrough moments, and through it all the toughest thing I find is sorting through all the noise so that you don’t lose sight of the history that’s being made.

On any given day it can be tempting, far too tempting to be swallowed up in the rush of news and blogging and commentary and tweeting about important issues and then lose sight of the issues themselves: issues like poverty and pain, deficits, bailouts, joblessness, healthcare, freedom and democracy. All too often, the slogans dominate and the reality fades, and we become consumed instead with debates of a far more basic variety, like was he wearing an American flag pin. Plus thanks to John Stewart and Saturday Night Live it has become downright entertaining to focus on the silliest aspects of what it takes to run for government and to govern well. We like that. It takes a little of the pressure off, but still. It should also be said, I do love John Stewart, and I watch him whenever I can stay awake long enough, but one of the things I like best about him is he knows he does not do what I do. Frequently when I’m on campuses like this, the students tell me, I’m sorry but John Stewart’s the only news I watch even if it is fake news. But guess who he watches. Me! Just saying.

I have a few things to share with you before I stop to take your questions, which is, by the way, the part I most look forward to because hopefully I get to pick your brains, learn from you, and go tell the world. Let me anticipate a few of your questions first. You’ll want to know if Washington is as screwed up as it looks, and the answer is nothing could be as screwed up as it looks. More on that in a moment. You’ll want to know if journalism, my profession, is hopelessly out of whack because of what you see when you turn on your television sets or fire up your computer. The short answer is we’re not quite as out of whack as it seems. In fact, we are a lot less screwed up than things look. More on that in a moment as well. You will want to know if Jim Lehrer is as cool as he seems, and the answer is he’s cooler than he seems…and funny. And then you will want to know whether I liked it when Queen Latifah played me on Saturday Night Live. I know you were too shy to ask the question, but since rather than wait for you to bring it up I just thought I’d just tell you I liked it a lot, and so would you.

I was visiting another college not long ago, when I just saw myself described on their website as a noted, Beltway journalist, which is exactly the thing I’ve been working for 25 years not to be called. But I’ve gotten used to being boiled down like that. When I was writing my book, the book Dianne mentioned, some boiled me down to Obama booster just because they knew the book, which at the time was not yet written, dealt with the topic of race. That’s all it took to become an Obama booster. That and his name is somewhere in the title. In other venues I am boiled down to other things, some of it correct, some of it incorrect. If you judge me simply by reading my bio, you could also brand me an activist on behalf of immigrants because my parents were born in another country, an activist on behalf of free speech because I believe in the First Amendment, women’s rights because I’m a woman, red lipstick cause I wear red lipstick. Some of that would be true and some of it would not be. There is one description, however, that I have recently come to embrace and that is as a leader.

I got my undergraduate degree from Simmons, as you heard, a women’s college and that experience taught me a lot about how to function in an environment where the words “women” and “leader” are not in conflict. It’s especially gratifying to be here during the tail end, the very last day, of Women’s History Month at a place where Carrie Chapman Catt learned how to be the first, but not the last. It’s a relief actually. Everywhere else I go it’s all about firsts. In my business we finally have women news anchors, yeah Katie and Diane. Yeah. But I keep an especially close eye on politics. I’ve been counting it up. We now have six women governors, four Republican, two Democrat; only one—Jan Brewer in Arizona—was not a first. There are 17 women in the Senate, 76 in the House, and even with the breakthrough of having had the first woman Speaker of the House, that’s not a lot. Still it is safe to say every one of these women and every woman in this room has smashed a few glass ceilings in her day one way or the other, which is gratifying and it is historic. And then what?

I thought about this a lot when I wrote that book a couple of years ago. It was actually about breakthrough candidates. I set out to write about African-American breakthroughs but quickly noticed as I was compiling the list of the people I wanted to profile that there weren’t that many women on the list, and I tried and tried and tried to figure out why. I thought to myself dog gone it, I’m a women. I’m going to get to the bottom of this. Then I came across a Brookings Institution Study, which surprised me. It described what they said was an ambition gap that keeps many women out of the mix. One woman politician said to me when I asked her about this, it’s like the train left and we weren’t on it. I think we decided we didn’t even want to get a ticket and that’s the difference.

The barriers to higher office for woman are buried and complicated but sometimes the simplest episodes illustrate the problem. My favorite one is when Senator Carol Moseley Braun ran for president in 2004. She would frequently arrive on stage wearing her signature tailored skirt suits. She would walk on stage and discover they had put high stools up there for all the candidates to sit on, and she was instructed to climb onto them and perch there throughout with her knees clamped awkwardly together while her male competitors kind of sprawled comfortably. I ran into Hillary Clinton at the State Department last week, and she reminded me that’s why she stuck to pantsuits. Then there was the mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin, she worked in city government for three mayors before she finally ran for mayor herself, and that only happened because she was recruited. When I asked her why it took her so long, she basically had been running the office, running the city. By the time she became mayor, she was in her late 50s. She told me, I did not think that I was worthy to serve. Imagine that. Other women told me they didn’t like raising money, some felt a greater duty to raise their children, and many choose other paths to public service, particularly in the nonprofit sector.

I think about these options, constrained as they remain even now, when I talk to young women. Twice I’ve had a chance to return to my alma mater to deliver the commencement address and look right into the eyes of these young women who are about to go out into the terrifying world of job hunts with Amanda, and I would have to look at them and tell them they’d been lied to for four years. They’d been told they could have it all. Not true. You can imagine how well that went over. I really ruined a graduation day. You might be able to have it all, I told them, but rarely all at the same time. Often these women wait until the speech is over to pull me aside and ask how is it that I balance my work and my personal life, and I tell them—once again another buzz kill—it’s hard. Usually not what they want to hear, but at least we have choices now. In that world of choices I’ve learned how to be a woman and a leader and a role model and informed. And I’ve learned that when you add race to the mix, that’s when it gets really complicated. In my first newspaper job—it was actually an internship—I worked at the Boston Herald American, which at the time in the mid 70s was a place full of—it was a real throw back of a newspaper—crusty, old, white guys with starched shirts and cigars that said “Give me a rewrite”—I swear they said this—and they had never seen an educated black woman up close before. They did not know what to make of me. But you know, we became friends. We became buddies. We hung out. I did my job. I was perfectly pleasant. I did not put salt in their coffee. It worked out fine. Then I arrived at work one day to find at my workspace a note reading, right at my space, that said Nigger go home. Now my first reaction—and this will tell you a little bit about me and how I was raised—was to look at this note and say, who is this for? I was genuinely puzzled, not for long, but long enough. I took this to my bosses and their first reaction was that they were not puzzled. They knew exactly who it was for. They knew who had written it, but they didn’t want to fire who had written it, so they offered me a job. And I of course said I will never go to work for these racists because…. I needed a job a year later and I took the job. Now the secret was that may not have been the neatest way to get me in the door, but once I got in the door I turned it into the first stepping stone to my career. I didn’t spend a lot of time with a chip on the shoulder worrying about what drove this. I knew that if they took me seriously, I could run with it.

I’m an optimist, and I came by this optimism kind of honestly. My dad, who was an ordained minister, was what I would call an accidental feminist, which is to say he wasn’t really that crazy about women in the pulpit or anything like that, but he raised all of his children to fight and he neglected to tell his daughters “no.” My mother is the one who taught us to say yes, but he didn’t tell us to say no. Not taking no for an answer has come in handy throughout my life and my career. It came in handy when the mayor of Baltimore, who I covered when I covered city hall in the mid 80s, bristled and he would scold me when I asked him tough questions. Once he said I acted like I was a school teacher or something, which I puzzled me. I didn’t know that was exactly supposed to mean, but I think he meant it badly. It came in handy when a radio talk show host trashed the whole entire Rutgers women’s basketball team by dismissing them with a nasty racist and sexist slur, and I was able to defend them. I was by then in a position to defend the not only in the op ed pages of the New York Times, but also on Meet the Press. It came in handy when the vice presidential candidates told me they were shocked, just shocked to learn that black women suffered disproportionate and skyrocketing rates of HIV infection. It came in handy when Dick Cheney told me he couldn’t answer a question in 30 seconds, and I said sorry. Not that way but that’s the way it came across. And it came in handy when critics decided that because I was writing this book, and because the book had Obama in the title, I was not fit to moderate a debate even though I had moderated one 4 years before without incident. I just put my head down. I did my job, and the critics faded away.

When I talk to these young women, I can still tell them to reach for the stars, for whatever they want, and I can mean it. I tell them what I’ve learned along the way. I tell them to be curious. I tell them that there are no dumb questions, which is not strictly true but I tell them that anyway. I tell them to learn how to write. I tell them to challenge authority—appropriately—and I tell them to strive for the possibility. It is the striving that has fueled the ambitions of Harriet Tubman, who saw the possibilities in escaping slavery, and Sojourner Truth, who saw the possibilities of what women could add to the national conversation, and of Carrie Chapman Catt, who saw the possibilities of how equal access in voting and simple justice could transform a nation. It’s because of these visionaries, in the end, that I became a journalist. That I get to believe that the search for the truth and the search for justice are not incompatible, and that they are in fact essential.

I have a flat spot on the front of my head, which you probably can’t see. I cover it up. It’s from banging my head against walls. I’ve been doing it for years—for my entire career—forcing diversity of thought and opinion onto the pages of the newspapers where I worked and onto the air where I work. And some weeks I am more successful than others, but how fortunate it is that I’m in a position to have the choice to fight and the ability to set priorities. We’re all trying to build our careers and live honorable lives and work hard to give our children all the choices they deserve. But who wants to knock down walls and break through glass ceilings only to find out that our sons and daughters don’t want to follow along behind us, that they don’t want to walk through the new doorways or get to that next level. We can’t let that happen. By example or by exertion, we have to reach behind and drag them along. It shouldn’t be hard for the women I know because we all carry a hammer in one hand and hope in the other. We’re trying to use the hammer to build those stairs for some other woman’s children or your own, for girls you mentor or for the perfect strangers you meet on the street. We don’t have any choice in this matter. We have to live in a world of expectation. We should expect to be treated as equal citizens. Our children should not expect to be inferior. We should all expect that anything is achievable, if not now, soon. I got into journalism because I thought that on some level, I guess I could change the world. That I could shed light in a few dark corners and break down a couple barriers. The barriers are often still there, the corners are often still dark, and I’ve discovered the world is often still resistant to change. But shining that light, a light of justice and a light of understanding, into the world—it can be tremendously satisfying.

At that point I’ll stop, and I’ll be happy to take your questions. Thank you.