Ifill, 45, is, in fact, a fourth-grade teacher's dream—the smart, hardworking, well-behaved kid who actually fulfills her promise. As the first African-American woman to serve as moderator and managing editor of PBS's Washington Week in Review, she has earned the respect of her colleagues and—rare for someone on a political talking-heads program—a coterie of devoted fans who have flooded the show with "We love Gwen" e-mails.
"The camera doesn't lie," says NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, with whom Ifill worked until October 1999, when she was wooed away from her job as chief congressional and political correspondent at NBC News. "If you're a good reporter, a terrific writer and a great personality, it's a perfect combination for television, and she's got all three." Howard Kurtz, media critic of The Washington Post, where Ifill worked as a political reporter from '84 to '91, agrees: "Gwen is blunt, down-to-earth and dogged. She's not a cookie-cutter journalist."
Born in New York City, the fifth of six children of the Reverend O. Urcille Ifill Sr. and Eleanor, a home-maker, Ifill credits her parents with her and her siblings' success. "They were very strict disciplinarians," says Ifill. "The church was like a life force in our home. My dad was the preacher, but my mom was the preacher's wife. And we were the preacher's kids. All the time."
The Reverend Ifill, who died in 1991 at the age of 72, moved the family around the Northeast, following his work from one African Methodist Episcopal church to another, so the Ifills' closest connections were with one another. They gathered for dinner each night and, in a foreshadowing of Gwen's career future, watched The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC afterward. "My parents wanted us to know what was going on in the world," says Maria Ifill Philip, 55, Gwen's sister, now a Foreign Service officer.
It sunk in. After graduating from Boston's Simmons College in 1977 with a degree in communications, Ifill started out as a newspaper reporter, working her way up from statehouse beats at the Baltimore Evening Sun and The Washington Post to covering the White House for The New York Times. It was from there that Russert recruited her to NBC.
Even as her career soared, however, Ifill kept her family a top priority. A year after her father's death, Gwen moved her mother from Philadelphia to an assisted-living residence near her Washington, D.C., home. In 1993 Eleanor was diagnosed with cancer and Gwen juggled the White House beat with daily visits to her mother. "She cared for my mom [who died in 1994] pretty much single-handedly the last year of her life," says brother Roberto, 46, assistant to the president of Macalester College. "She said, 'That's what I have to do. I'll take on the responsibility.' "
Ifill admits she also feels a responsibility as one of the most successful African-American women in journalism. As WWR moderator she has made the panels more diverse. And when she's on the road she tries to schedule visits to schools to encourage students, particularly women and minorities, to pursue careers in journalism. "I don't know if you can get past race in America," she says. "But I don't see it as a negative. It can often be a positive."
Although work takes up most of her time, Ifill, who is single, manages to carve out some time for socializing, often hosting game nights at her three-bedroom northwest D.C. house for friends like ABC newswoman Michele Norris, 39, and Michel Martin, 41, of ABC's Nightline. Favorites include Scrabble, Clue and Trivial Pursuit. "Gwen is a great, great friend," says Martin. "But do not play games with her." Like everything else she does, Ifill plays to win.
Lisa Newman in Washington, D.C.
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