Ifill Talk Fills Ira Allen
Release Date: 10-01-2010
2010 Aiken Lecturer Gwen Ifill heads to the podium to deliver her lecture, heard by a full house. Listen to Ifill's talk online. (Photo: Sally McCay)
Before Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent and co-anchor for the PBS NewsHour, delivered her George D. Aiken Lecture and fielded questions from members of a packed Ira Allen Chapel on Sept. 30, she wanted to get a few things out of the way.
"You will want to know if Washington is as screwed up as it looks," said Ifill, moderator and managing editor of Washington Week. "The short answer is nothing could be as screwed up as it looks. You will want to know if my craft, journalism, is hopelessly out of whack. The short answer is -- not quite. In fact, we are a lot less screwed up than it looks from a distance. You will want to know if Jim Lehrer (PBS NewsHour anchor) is as cool as he seems. The answer is more. And you'll want to know whether I liked it when Queen Latifah played me on Saturday Night Live. Short answer -- I liked it a lot. I don't get a lot of cover girl models playing me, so I'll take it."
Ifill's 40-minute lecture titled "Politics, Policy, and Reality from Washington to Vermont and Beyond" took on a more serious tone and touched on a wide range of topics including the current political climate heading into the mid-term elections, the media's role in covering world events, and her journey as a black female journalist.
"I am a political junkie," said Iffil, "but I am not an idealogue. That's something that's really hard to find in Washington these days. But let me tell you how I got to be that way. I probably got hooked on politics, you know, on my father's knee when he sat me down and made me watch Shirley Chisolm running for president in 1972. Now, I wasn't old enough to vote then. But I found it incredibly exciting when I could look on the television and see someone who looked like me doing such a thing. I became hardcore when Texas Congress woman (Barbara Jordan) took the podium at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. These women were the descendants of so many other women. Sojourner Truth. Some people like me, who looked like me, taught me about the power of change, before Barack Obama was born."
Ifill drew parallels between Jordan's speech and Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "She spoke about promises deferred and realized," said Ifill. "She spoke a lot about the future, only a little about the past. She spoke about change and hope. And if you go back and read that speech, you will see that it sounds an awful lot like the speech that Barack Obama delivered in 2004. She spoke about the choice between people, bound together by a common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor, a national community formed by individuals. That's what I meant when I wrote my book (The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama) about breakthroughs."
Ifill said that shortly after the book was published in 2009, people would ask her if Obama's election was proof that America was 'post-racial.' "I would pause for a moment to allow them to not think I was dismissing them out of hand, which I was about to, and point out that in order to long for a post-racial society, you have to feel that there's something wrong with race," said Ifill. "In order to say 'I'm color blind' means that you're looking away from something that you find distasteful. What's wrong with the positivity of race? What's wrong with seeing it as something which adds to our wonderful national dialogue? … That's not a bad thing. That's engagement. Engagement on any topic, any topic that takes us into unfamiliar territory, especially, that's the kind of engagement that has the power to ennoble us."
Following her lecture, Ifill, who has also worked for NBC News, The New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Boston Herald American, fielded questions for about 30 minutes and then signed copies of her book. She seemed to enjoy fielding questions that focused on politics, the economy and the Tea Party.
In response to whether she thought younger voters and independents would continue to support Obama and other Democrats during the mid-term elections, Ifill said she wasn't sure that would happen given the current economic conditions. "One thing about 2008 is that people were voting for an individual, and this time there are lots of individuals; and the one thing that most Americans, or many Americans, have in common is they just don't like the ones who are there now, Democrats or Republicans. Democrats happen to be the ones there now for one reason, as simple as that; that's the reason why they're going to continue to suffer."
When asked if she thought it problematic for someone running for public office like Sarah Palin to work as a television commentator, Ifill said she thought it was a decision not to be taken lightly. "You know, I think it's not just Sarah Palin. I remember when Pat Buchanan was running for president off and on, and in between he always seemed to have a television gig on NBC. At the time I worked for NBC, so this bothered me. I think that when you know pretty much that these people are going to run for president, they should really pick and choose what they're going to do."
One questioner asked Ifill if she thought there'd be a woman elected president in her lifetime. Ifill jokingly asked how old she was. "Oh, yeah, sure. I mean you've got to find somebody. It's not just a female president; it's got to be an individual. I mean Hillary Clinton really did come very close but it's like all breakthroughs. It's not about just the idea that any woman can walk up and be next in mind. It's got to be a specific woman, for instance, maybe Sarah Palin will be president in your lifetime. Does that make you happy? Well, you asked, and didn't say what party."
Another audience member asked how Ifill thought Vermont's congressional delegation was doing. "Just fine," she responded to loud applause. "You think I'm going to walk up to a room of Vermont voters and say, 'Big mistake?'"
As for her thoughts on affirmative action, Ifill said, "It gets you in the door. It doesn't keep you there. I know I'm a beneficiary of affirmative action. I also know that if I had failed after I got to Simmons College, my butt would have been on the street, and no affirmative action would have rescued me."
As for the Tea Party: "I think that when people speak out and get engaged, it's good. I think it's helpful if you're informed and engaged ... I learned ... not to assume that because someone goes to a Tea Party rally they're an evil, under-informed person, but they are likely to be someone who wants to be heard, and they feel that no one's listening."
Ifill closed with some advice for students about to enter the workforce. "The truth is, everything that we do if we're fortunate, if we're blessed, there's got to be something that we love, and it's got to be something that we love for reasons that are more than about remuneration or just about feeling that your ego has been served."
Read Ifill's PBS blog about her trip to UVM: www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2010/10/listening-to-the-other-side.html