If you were dying to know what Gwen Ifill was thinking when the controversy arose about her so-called Obama book and how that might have effected her ability to moderate the 2008 vice-presidential debate - now's your chance.
Ifill, the host of PBS's "Washington Week" appeared at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 24 to promote her new book, "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." The book was a focal point of controversy last fall and questions were raised as to whether Ifill could be an impartial moderator of the vice-presidential debate, even though she had a book that featured Barack Obama set to come out after the election.
In that appearance, Ifill claimed she didn't believe the book inhibited her ability to moderate that debate and pointed out her ability to overcome racism as how she dealt with the controversy - by strapping on her "blinders." She also took a couple of passive jabs at former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin - commenting on her "thin" biography and remarking on Palin's debate performance.
Below is a transcript from her Jan. 24 appearance addressing the controversy:
QUESTIONER: Regarding your job as a moderator in the presidential debates, and I thought you did a fine job there
GWEN IFILL: Thank you.
IFILL: I knew there was a "but" coming by the way, so don't start the applause yet.
QUESTIONER: Even though I do believe you did the job with integrity and you did it honestly, weren't you concerned that merely the fact you were writing a book which was perceived as ...
IFILL: I'm so glad you asked this question, finish it.
QUESTIONER: But weren't you concerned the fact you were writing a book, which was seen as being the Barack Obama book - weren't you concerned about the appearance of impropriety - weren't you concerned for that reason, if nothing else that might harm the debate process , so it might be better for someone else to take that job?
IFILL: No, I wasn't actually
(CROWD LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
IFILL: No, but I'm glad you asked it because I want a chance to tell you how that rolled out in my head. Two days before the debate, I fell down the stairs and broke my ankle - the most famous ankle wound in the history of America. And so I had a couple of things on my mind other than that. But, the night before, the night that that happened, which was my birthday ... the night this happened, I had just completed writing my last question. In fact, I slipped on the copies of the Biden and Palin biography.
IFILL: I won't tell you which one I slipped on, but you can just imagine which was the skinnier one.
IFILL: I told both candidates that, that night at the debate, so you know they apologized. Another thing, I found out there was a kerfuffle happening online about my book - my unwritten book, the book which I had not yet put pen to paper about who Barack Obama was. My book, which I knew because I had written most of it at that point, except for that and the conclusion - because I figured as a reporter, how do you write the conclusion before you know how it ends, but anyway. Obviously it turned out there were a lot of people out there who decided they knew and I just decided I couldn't be influenced by people who decided they knew what I know was not true. If I spent my entire life and career worrying about perception, I wouldn't be a journalist. I wouldn't be on television. I probably wouldn't get up every day because people expect so little of African-Americans. They expect us to fail. They expect us to be trifling. They expect a lot things - not everybody but there are those. And that's exactly my point. It's the not everybody, with a very small group of loud people who raise these questions. And by the way, continue to.
The other day I was in a Washington Post chat and someone asked me this question and I said, "Well, now that you have the book, you can answer it for yourself." Because I knew it wasn't going to be a book about Obama and I also knew that the question would not have been raised had someone else been writing a book. Journalists write books all the time about people they cover and questions aren't raised. So I said, OK fine. Someone needs to make this point in order to distract, discredit, whatever - but I can't be part of it.
So, I strapped on my blinders and I didn't change a single question prior to the time it happened. If I thought I had to change anything I planned to ask, then I - then the terrorists would have won.
IFILL: I would have been influenced to think, "Oh my God, what if, am I." I would have spent all my time navel-gazing my performance instead of doing what was really important. That night, I got hundreds of questions from people who told what I should ask. Ninety-nine percent of them told me what I should ask Sarah Palin. None of them wanted to know what I should ask Joe Biden. And I had to explain to people, you know this is a debate. There's two people up there and my job is to moderate, which means there's two people. So people who decided I was really going to get up there and say, "So Sarah Palin, who the hell do you think you are?" That was never going to happen. I always going to find a way to console their conversation if they would participate ...
IFILL: ... between the two candidates so that people watching could make their own decision. Now that meant that there are a lot of questions, which if I pursued with her, I would look like I was drilling her in an interview, rather than moderating a debate. That I thought of long before anybody raised any questions. That was what was driving how I came up with my questions and how I posed them and the commas and the dotting of the i's. The people who are raising these questions about me have given no thought to this at all, but I didn't really give a lot of thought to them.