Armstrong: Gwen Ifill was an inspiration to many, including me

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PBS journalist Gwen Ifill moderated the 2008 vice presidential; below, Ifill talks with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during the debate. GETTY IMAGES

BESIDES POLITICS, I learned other things from PBS anchor Gwen Ifill:

Good journalism prevails over all else. And I needed to stop leaving my purse on the floor.

Let me explain.

Back then, I was a cub reporter and about as green as they come. Ifill already was a big-time national reporter at the Washington Post. I was a lowly editorial aide writing for the Post's District Weekly section and wondering if I'd made a huge mistake by majoring in journalism and going to work for a newspaper.

I was putting in really long hours for little pay and feeling dismal about my prospects. Ifill stopped by my desk to chat. She couldn't have been more encouraging. She talked about her personal experiences and told me to stop stressing and that things had a way of working out. Boy, was that good advice.

Ifill - who died of cancer Monday at age 61 - was right about the purse thing, too. Even if the old wives' tale that doing so causes money problems is just superstition, it's still a disgusting habit - and one I dropped because of Ifill's influence.

As the years passed and Ifill's career flourished, taking her to the New York Times and later to NBC and PBS, I watched from afar in amazement. After a successful career in print, she made the switch to TV. Most print people are terrible on TV.

Viewers trusted how they could get their news from her - straight, with no chaser, as they say. In TV circles, with so many personalities who seemed more obsessed with having perfect hair and makeup, Ifill stood out because she was more about serving up the meat of an issue than dazzling you with sizzle.

In 1999, she became the first black woman to host a major national political show when she took over a roundtable public affairs program called Washington Week in Review. At our house, with her in the anchor seat, that show was must-see TV. I once pulled her aside at an industry function and jokingly blamed her for keeping me in every Friday, since my new husband at the time preferred watching her show to our ever going out. She laughed and urged him to DVR it.

She did a heck of a job moderating the vice presidential debates, in both 2004 and 2008, because she asked questions that no one else thought to ask. For instance, she once brought up the subject of AIDS: "I want to talk to you about AIDS. And not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government's role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?"

That caught both Dick Cheney and John Edwards off guard, revealing a lack of knowledge and preparation by both candidates. Watching from home, I cheered at her putting what was happening with black women front and center in a vice presidential debate.

In 2008, before moderating the debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, she bristled at the notion that anyone would think of her as impartial because she was writing a book about then-Sen. Barack Obama.

"I've got a pretty long track record covering politics and news, so I'm not particularly worried that one-day blog chatter is going to destroy my reputation," she told the Associated Press then.

Viewers should have suspected something was wrong when earlier this year, Ifill took time off her job as co-anchor of The PBS NewsHour during a presidential campaign.

On Monday, in his first post-election news conference, Obama praised Ifill.

"Whether she reported from a convention floor or from the field, whether she sat at the debate moderator's table or at the anchor's desk, she not only informed today's citizens but she also inspired tomorrow's journalists," the president said.

"She was an especially powerful role model for young women and girls who admired her integrity, her tenacity and her intellect."

I count myself lucky for having been among those whom she inspired.

I've made a career in journalism, and I've kept my purse off the floor.