It must’ve been in the mid-1990s that I came to the conclusion that Gwen Ifill would make a better US president than any candidate I had seen since I began to vote, and certainly better on what was on offer that year. The thought occurred to me regularly because at the time we regularly watched the PBS Newshour, with Jim Lehrer as the anchor and she as a chief correspondent (the titles they used). A memory comes back to me of Laura visiting a friend at this time, voicing shock that the family did not turn on this news program (these were arch-conservative people who I assume voted for Trump this time), and coming home to tell me they had laughed about this. “Not everyone watches PBS reports” they had said.
She died today of endometrial cancer, age 61. Apparently she had been sick for over a year.
As you can see I feel a kind of personal connection with Ifill (different from but analogous to my feeling about Jenny Diski, also destroyed by cancer), so choose to put this as part of my life-writing. It is, though, now also political, more in the vein of what I write on my first Sylvia blog nowadays. On such a bleak desolating day (where we can see how what we have is a hollow pretense of democracy), it seemed to me to keep spirits up not to be cowed and offer some effective force against the coming racist fierce militarist capitalism (a gov’t which will crush civil liberties even more than they have been!) now being put in place, let us remember her life and work.
I was reassured about the PBS Newshour tonight too because they devoted most of their hour to her. I have been disappointed and at times dismayed by the lack of rigorous questioning and truth-telling about Trump, the failure of Judy Woodruff as a woman to “call out” (as it’s articulated) Shields and Brooke for their equating Trump’s corruption and fascism with Hillary Clinton’s atttempt to keep her emails private, for their sexism; the worst moment was Paul Salmon’s shameful disrespectful tone towards David Kay Johnston while interviewing him on his thoroughly-researched exposure of Trump’s business practices, The Making of Donald Trump. Tonight for the first time I am aware how often Gwen Ifill was not there. In these last few years she had become more bland, more discreet, reined in the acute thinking mind of the earlier years: PBS is so dependent on corporate sponsors. So I didn’t miss her as much as I would have when she was merely a memorable part of a team questioning and talking or an on-the-spot reporter.
But I remembered and knew what she was capable of delivering and still did deliver in interviews from time to time. She projected and was a strong presence in her role of moderator, facilitator in recent years and I just enjoyed the line-up of segments she and Judy Woodruff produced together. It seemed to me a woman’s news hour of serious news, far better in scope, in what was understood and shown to be important than almost any other (a sole exception is another woman’s news program, Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow.org). Precisely because it was a woman’s show they chose Malcolm Brabant on refugees, Fred de Sam Lazaro on the marginalized of the world, always showing how the intimate small experience is large political and affects us all.
Two panels, some tapes of reminiscent, and excerpts from an appreciation of Ifill comprised the beautiful tribute. I was much moved listening to those who had been helped in their careers, whom she worked with, whom she knew for many years in her private life. Charlene Hunter-Gault began to tear up more than once, Judy was unsteady and towards the end Hari Svrinavasin called her his mentor. It felt especially important to voice all this and present the worlds she came from, belonged to, and those she reported before because soon (before long now, January 20th to be precise), we seem headed to have media dominated by repression of all but fascistic points of view. That she lived and worked with the ideals she did should cheer us, even if her ending reveals much more emphatically than other parts of her existence, how we are are subject to the results of little ameliorated capitalism:
She was another victim to the cancer pandemic: and I feel a personal connection tonight because I can discern in the pattern of her behavior in this last year a paradigm like my husband’s: in summer she was off-the-air, said to have had a serious operation, after a considerable recovery period, she was back and looked strong, but only for one season, the she suddenly disappeared and in what felt like no time, was dead in a hospice. Like Jim, she had the show of force in a drastic operation, and then shortly after recovering, the cancer re-appeared in vital organ and devoured her.
With her sister, Sherrilyn, Ifill
I was strengthened and consoled by the truth-telling of two more presences on the Internet. The first, a poem by Adrienne Rich, written
What Kind of Times Are These
By Adrienne Rich
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
The other the consolatory voice of retreat, Garrison Keillor’s “I’ll sit back and wait.”. What is most valuable in his words is his saying firmly Trump is the candidate of those who whooped it up for cruelty, ignorance and bald-faced stupidity. Especially cruelty (“by your 20s, you should be done with cruelty”): that was what was repeated across his most hooting jeering withering derision — of the disabled, of women, of people who grieving for the death of a son in a (colonialist) war, pensioned veterans (weak), the list is long and I need not take us through it. This was funny until he got to “deport the undocumented” (it is too much like Hitler that Trump’s first planned presidential order is to deport millions of hispanics):
Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long, brisk walk and smell the roses.
What we who have voted for this party have now to do is spend four years pressuring for a re-invention of this democratic party into a body of people who respond to what their constituency wants and needs. I agree with Glen Greenwald on the Democratic Party self-destructing itself. In one of his last speeches before conceding the nomination to Clinton, Sanders said this election was about an impoverished woman (maybe he said on food stamps) struggling to bring up her children.
On election day I was in my local supermarket and had had on a real line in front of me a latino woman with two young children. Her meat was in plastic bags. Huge bags of dried vegetables. Well it was time to pay and she pulled out food stamps. Alas, it appeared that she had pulled the wrong product from some shelf and taken a bigger of whatever than was coming to her — 3 such wrong-size bags. These food stamps are very tricky; you are allowed to buy only certain specified products. The manager had to come over to settle the dispute (as there was a sign and she had an ad saying this product was for sale for food stamps), and then Linda (the checker, a kind hearted long term employee) was helping her dismantle her cart. On the other side of me a tough-looking (in her face) woman with blonde hair (clearly dyed), in jeans, looked very mad. Need I say she had a Trump t-shirt? So I said, “I think we ought to have a National Holiday to vote. All states stay open until 9. Everyone then could do it easily.” I do think that. She glared at me and was about to erupt with angry comments, when the manager sent another checker to open another register and make the long line of people vanish. This young woman cannot access any money through the welfare system that she could then use for her family in the best ways possible for them.
That woman with her food stamps is but for Jim me. I will now return to support Bernie Sanders.
But for now, tonight, we can remember Gwen Ifill and think of the good she managed to do, embody, and encourage others to achieve. It is necessary to talk about trees, real as well as metaphoric.