Gwen Ifill and I used to exchange hate mail on a semi-regular basis. Not our own, of course. I loved Gwen the way so many people, both in Washington and across the country, loved Gwen, and like so many people, I found myself broken by her death earlier this week. I don’t have the temerity to characterize her view of me, except to say that she cared enough about my happiness, and my reputation, such as it is, to offer up behavioral guidance whenever she felt it necessary. This guidance often consisted of two words: “Stop tweeting!”
The hate mail we shared was directed at us by racists and anti-Semites. Gwen, of course, was a singular figure of extraordinary prominence. Try to name the African American women at the summit of the television news business, and you’ll likely struggle to produce a long list, or, for that matter, a list. Gwen’s fame, her charisma, her obdurate adherence to fact-based standards many people now consider antediluvian, and her top-tier intellect combined to make her a figure of adoration for many, but also a target of loathing for others.
I spent some time this week rummaging through our old email and text exchanges, an exercise that reminded me of her humility, her gift for friendship, her good humor, and also her perspicacity. Because Gwen, it seemed, knew what was coming. I was brought up short by one exchange in particular that grew out of the reaction to an article I wrote in early 2012. The article concerned the practice of dog-whistling, the use of coded, ambiguous language by politicians to appeal to the prejudices of certain voters. Dog-whistling now seems so very 2012; one of Donald Trump’s many campaign innovations was to discard dog-whistling in favor of more straightforward appeals to prejudice. But at the time, Newt Gingrich’s criticism of President Obama as the “food-stamp president,” to cite one example, seemed worthy of comment.