Smartphones change death. When I heard that Gwen Ifill had died on Monday I pulled out my phone and scrolled through the photo album.
There were pictures of Gwen and her “NewsHour” colleague Judy Woodruff laughing uproariously together, doing little exploding fist-bumps, which I sneakily took while she was heroically covering the political conventions this year.
There was a picture of her joyously driving a boat full tilt during a “NewsHour” party a few summers ago, the wind blasting into her clothes and face. There were pictures of her posing with friends of mine who had come to visit the set. Everybody who came wanted a picture with Gwen.
Every reminiscence you read about Gwen will describe her smile. It was not subtle. It shone from her face like some sort of spiritual explosion.
Once, during a walk through Rock Creek Park, she told me that if she didn’t go to church on Sunday she felt a little flatter for the whole week. A spirit as deep and ebullient as hers needed nourishment and care, and when it came out it came out in her smile, which was totalistic and unrestrained.
Gwen worked in a tough business, and being an African-American woman in that business brought its own hardships and scars, but Gwen’s smile did not hold back. Her whole personality was the opposite of reticent, and timidity was a stranger to her. When the Ifill incandescence came at you, you were getting human connection full-bore.
And you had better honor it. After the photos, I searched Monday through our email exchanges. I don’t know how Gwen was with her other friends, but she’d send me short, sometimes cryptic emails every couple of weeks. Sometimes it was a compliment, sometimes a bit of gossip, sometimes it was a jokey offer to rub out someone who’d been nasty to me, and sometimes she was just the sort of friend who checks in: “For some reason you have been on my mind. Are you well?”
Gwen was ebullient, as I’ve mentioned, but she was not soft. She was authoritative, an executive and confident.
I suppose every profession has a few people like this, people who love the whole profession, who pay compliments when its standards are met and who are tough when they are not. Gwen talked a lot about her extended family, but also a lot about newsrooms and who were the great colleagues in them.
I would say she was an ambitious person. She liked moderating the big debates, even though she was a bundle of nerves just before. But she was not ambitious the way some other TV people are. Gwen was adored wherever she went, but she let the adoration roll off her, without it affecting her understanding of what was real.
She was ambitious for quality. She worked for low money at PBS. She worked doggedly on her programs, and whenever I did anything that diminished the “NewsHour” she let me know directly.
She loved her country, too. She relentlessly promoted female and African-American journalists. She had a strong affinity for badass women of all types. She kept her journalistic distance from the Obamas, but she knew what a step it was to have an African-American president.
The night before Obama’s inauguration in 2009, a group of journalists met in David and Katherine Bradley’s house. At the end of the evening they gathered around the piano and sang civil rights anthems and some hymns. Everybody knew the first stanza to “Amazing Grace,” but only Gwen knew the last three, which she sang alone, in honor of the past labors and future promise.
By 2012 she sensed that racial ugliness was coming out into the open. She began getting more racist reactions on social media and she moved to support her friend Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, who was getting anti-Semitic ones. Keep your head down and keep writing, she urged Goldberg; it’s what they don’t want you to do. Gwen knew what was coming.
These days it is normal to bash Washington, to want to “drain the swamp” and to attack the mainstream media. The populists are in and the establishment is out.
But I confess, when I looked at the front of The Times website on Monday and saw a photo of Stephen K. Bannon, on leave from Breitbart as chairman and rising in power, and then underneath it a photo of Gwen, who is passing from this world, I wanted to throw up. This is not progress and this is not good news.
Gwen’s death merits a bit of the reaction that greeted the death of the writer Samuel Johnson centuries ago: She has left a chasm, which nobody else can fill up and which nobody has a tendency to fill.
Now that Gwen is dead, who is the next best thing? There’s nobody. There are many great people who will follow her example. But nobody quite reminds you of Gwen.