UPDATE 10/1/13: A wonderful article by Eleanor on her career at Newsweek–The Magazine That Was–My Final Issue after 50 Years at Newsweek
By Pamela Burke/January 30, 2011
Eleanor Clift is a well known Washington journalist whose insider reporting appears in Newsweek and the Daily Beast. You’ve probably seen her as a regular contributor to the nationally syndicated show “The McLaughlin Group” firmly holding her own with the other vociferous panelists.
Her recent article “The Gabrielle Giffords I Know” in the Daily Beast caught my eye. The story that began as a memorial and ended as a tribute appeared the day the congresswoman was shot. Eleanor recalled remarks Representative Giffords had made the week before on two panels they shared at Renaissance Weekend in South Carolina.
“Gabby’s attitude makes us appreciate our public servants. The last election cycle or two they’ve been the object of such animosity.” Eleanor Clift
I wanted to ask Eleanor about this personal story and get her reflections on Giffords and the country as the weeks have passed. She was kind enough to offer her observations…
EYE: We saw the empty seat left for Rep. Giffords and the invited guests from Tucson at the State of the Union Speech. The photo of her and her husband holding hands at the Houston hospital was very touching. How did the recent shooting incident change business as usual in Washington?
ELEANOR: The shooting was a circuit breaker that prompted everybody to do some needed self-examination. The result is a renewed tone of civility. That doesn’t mean the partisan fights are over, but there might be less name-calling.
EYE: I went to Tucson and was struck by the outpouring of support and love for Gabby.
ELEANOR: Yes, and this is a time when everyone is so critical of politicians. Everyone is rooting for her. She had a particularly warm and outgoing personality. It went across the ideological spectrum.
That’s her community and she really worked hard at her job there. Every weekend she did some kind of event. We sometimes forget how close members of the House are to their constituents.
“The story included a cross section of America that we should rightfully be proud of.”
EYE: Why has this story touched such a nerve?
ELEANOR: Not only was it about Gabrielle Giffords but there was the prospect that it was a political assassination attempt. And there was the fear that it was the direct result of political rhetoric. It’s touched us on a number of levels.
The tragic death of the nine-year-old girl moved everyone. Gabrielle’s heritage is Jewish. A Mexican-American intern saved her life. The trauma chief there is a Korean-American who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The judge was a Roman Catholic who had been to mass that morning. The story included a cross section of America that we should rightfully be proud of.
EYE: Did you think President Obama did well with his speech in Tucson?
ELEANOR: It sure didn’t look like it was going to be easy. He had to rise above so much of the name calling that was going on. When President Reagan spoke to the country after the Challenger exposion on the same day that he delivered the State of the Union address, the country was more unified.
When President Clinton faced the nation after the Oklahoma bombing, he had the same type of political division, but the climate is more divisive today.
We had to grade the President on “The McLaughlin Group.” I gave him an A plus plus. I think Patrick Buchanan gave him an A. I, of course, had to better him.
“I also said that on a personal note that Gabby was one of the smartest, warmest, and down to earth people that I knew.”
EYE: Your story about Giffords sharing her thoughts on the political climate was very illuminating. How did you happen to write about that conversation?
ELEANOR: I was sitting at home and had just filed a story for the Daily Beast on an upcoming lunch with the First Lady and Mrs. Carla Bruni-Sarcozy. Then I read in my email that there had been a shooting.
I saw that Gabby was involved and heard her pronounced dead. I was very upset. I had spent some time at three Renaissance Weekends with her and her husband Mark and had gotten to know them.
I told my editor that I had just seen her and that she talked about her most recent race. I also said that on a personal note Gabby was one of the smartest, warmest, and most down to earth people that I knew. He said to write the story as a memorial.
EYE: What happened when you found out she had survived the shooting?
ELEANOR: We immediately made it a tribute. I did say initially that these weekends are supposed to be off the record, but given what had happened, I felt it would be worthwhile to write about it.
What she said about the ugliness of the campaign was so poignant in the context of what had happened that I knew she would say it in a public forum. The amount of time members of Congress spend fundraising and the fact that her last race cost $4.2 million are not secrets either.
I have nothing but the highest praise for this woman. I also pointed out that she voted against Speaker Nancy Pelosi and for Congressman John Lewis. She is from a very difficult district. Nancy Pelosi did not hold that against her one bit.
EYE: Is Gabby an atypical politician in Washington?
ELEANOR: She really stands out amongst the 435 members in the House because she has such an exhuberant personality. She has successfully navigated politics in a district where she’s on the progressive side and the district is on the conservative side.
The two other women who flew out to see her also are standouts. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz from Florida was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy at 44.
She spoke about it at a dinner last month and gave her thoughts on the GOP mantra for repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a plan of their own: “For those who speak Republican, I call it repeal and replace.” She did get a breast reconstruction. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from New York has also gravitated to Gabby.
EYE: Is there a new camaraderie amongst women in Congress in Washington?
ELEANOR: No. It’s always been there. There are stories that go back before the Internet on how women, particularly in the Senate, came together. There was a women’s caucus headed by former Rep. Pat Schroeder from Colorado years ago. She and Sen. Olympia Snowe co-chaired this pro choice caucus.
EYE: There is something about Rep. Giffords’ dedication to the job that’s been illuminating and invigorating.
ELEANOR: Gabby’s attitude makes us appreciate our public servants. The last election cycle or two they’ve been the object of such animosity. If the new era of civility takes hold, people may look at them in a new way.
ELEANOR: What they’re going through is very private. In the months ahead, they will want their privacy more and more. I do wince when I heard all the detail about her injuries, but this is the world we live in.
People want to know. I thnk they’ve done a good job so far balancing between the need to know and keeping what should be private, private.
EYE: It seems like they have a wonderful relationship with an amazing closeness.
ELEANOR: They are close. One of the things she talked about at Renaissance was the terrible ads that were run that said, “Her husband won’t even vote for her–why should we?” The reality was that his legal address was not in her district, so he couldn’t vote for her.
He’s stationed in Houston with two teenage daughters. She was quite concerned about the unfairness of the attack because it was completely false.
EYE: This is an unusual couple. They have a very different lifestyle and both have jobs in the spotlight.
ELEANOR: These are two very high-powered people from two very different walks of life who met on a visit to China. They reconnected when she was working on the issue of capital punishment at an Arizona state prison. That is an unusual courtship.
” I don’t see a major tidal wave of changes coming out of the shooting incident.”
EYE: Do you think this shooting incident will have a long term affect on people’s attitudes about violence and guns?
ELEANOR: Go back to the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations and then Oklahoma City, Columbine, and Virginia Tech. Each time we’ve seen some attempts at gun control follow these incidents. After Virginia Tech there was some modest tightening of the laws of reporting procedure on people with mental health problems.
This shooting has generated some kind of interest in the ban of assault weapon magazines. The conventional wisdom is that the votes aren’t there.
Republicans are not interested in gun control. Democrats aren’t either because they would pay such a political price. I do think there will be a pulling back on rhetoric by self censorship because politicians know that the public really doesn’t like it. I don’t see a major tidal wave of changes coming out of the shooting incident.
“The only time I was indispensable was when I was a secretary.”
EYE: You started as a secretary at the beginning of your career. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer or reporter?
ELEANOR: The only time I was indispensable was when I was a secretary. I still can take shorthand and type up a storm. It never occurred to me that I could be a reporter.
I was working at Newsweek and saw that there was something else going on out there. That was the era when women were agitating. I never would have been the first one at the barricades.
EYE: You’ve come such a long way. Last year you lectured on Women in Politics at Stanford University. How did you finally become a journalist?
ELEANOR: The women at Newsweek brought a lawsuit against the company in the early 70s. As part of the settlement, Newsweek created internships for women to try out. I asked for one and got it. They assigned me to cover Jimmy Carter who was running for president.
The tradition in journalism is that if you cover the winning candidate, you get to go to Washington. So that’s how I got here and I’ve been here ever since. I call that my Cinderella story.
EYE: You’re known for your honesty. How important is that in journalism?
ELEANOR: It makes better copy. It gives it authenticity. That’s what people are looking for. It’s a lot easier to be honest than to figure out tortured ways of covering up what the truth is. It works, and it’s much better for your health.
EYE: You co-wrote a book called “Madam President, Shattering the Glass Ceiling” that examined the prospects for women seeking high office. Do you think there will be a female president soon?
ELEANOR: It’s inevitable but whether it’s going to happen in the near or distant future is hard to tell. It’s difficult to hone in on the specific woman it might be. Hillary Clinton could have another run in her. Someone like Sen. Gillibrand is beginning to get a name for herself.
She certainly would have the time it takes to get there. It’s very difficult to find a specific woman who would make it with all that it takes. I don’t think Sarah Palin is it.
EYE: You make the point that a woman would govern differently. Can you expand on that?
ELEANOR: There have been all kinds of studies concluding that women are more collaborative and that they don’t seem to care about who gets the credit. I think we can learn something by the way Hillary has been operating.
She handed off a lot of power at the State Department, yet she still has always managed to stay in control. I think women tend to be more collaborative as leaders. Janet Napolitano was very successful in Arizona. Look at Gabrielle Gifford’s leadership style. She’s very empathetic and reaches out. Men do that, too. But I think it tends to come more naturally to women.
ELEANOR: Yes, because the Republicans now have some shared responsibility for governing. They can’t just stay on the sidelines and throw spitballs.
EYE: You continue to write for Newsweek and The Daily Beast as they combine forces. Are you going to write another book?
ELEANOR: I probably will write a memoir telling my Cinderella story. Right now life is busy with blogging and the new news environment at Newsweek and the Daily Beast.
EYE: I was struck by the last line of your article.
“What a terrible irony that her husband can go into space in a capsule and return home safely, but his wife’s safety can’t be assured outside a Safeway supermarket.”
Can people feel safe anymore?
ELEANOR: I think people are more mindful that there can be violence and that there are deranged people out there. You wonder – if these were people we didn’t know as well, and not a federal judge, a member of Congress, and a nine-year-old – whether the story would have gotten this kind of attention.
I think we have these kinds of things happen periodically. We’re not going to put up metal detectors everywhere.
EYE: Thanks, Eleanor, for your terrific insight. We’re looking forward to reading your next articles and particularly that future memoir.