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Gwen Ifill Prepares for Tonight's Debate

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It’s finally time to hear from vice-presidential candidates Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin, who for the first time tonight will face off in their much-anticipated debate at Washington University in St. Louis. Leading the discussion is veteran journalist Gwen Ifill, who also moderated the vice-presidential debates in 2004. The host of PBS’s “Washington Week” has been under fire recently, with some calling her biased and unfit to moderate, for writing a book about Senator Obama’s presidential election. (Ifill’s book is tentatively titled “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Doubleday) and is scheduled to contain one chapter on the presidential hopeful.)  In an interview with the Associated Press, Ifill says, "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." Find out how she prepares for these events, calms her pre-debate jitters, and why she’s not concerned about the lack of diversity among her cohorts.

ESSENCE.COM: How do you come up with your list of questions for the debate?
GWEN IFILL:
I read everything that I can get my hands on about what the two candidates have done, what they’ve written, what their record is, and I mostly sequester myself in the house and come up with the questions myself. Four years ago I was counseled by Jim Lehrer, who’s moderated about ten debates. [He advised me] to keep it close to the vest because there are so many people out there who are interested in gauging your intentions and what you plan to ask. That said, I get a lot of advice, most of it unsolicited, from viewers, from readers, people at the gym, on the street. Most of [the questions people suggest] I’ve already thought of, but the obvious ones aren’t the hard part. The hard part is how to facilitate a debate between these individuals.

ESSENCE.COM: Are you nervous?
IFILL:
I’m not the least bit nervous until people ask me if I’m nervous. Then I get nervous. Last time, no matter how nervous I got, I remembered the candidates are far more nervous than me. So when I realize this, it makes me feel calmer.

ESSENCE.COM: When the debate schedule was announced, there was some grumbling that the presidential debate moderators (Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer) are all older, White men. Your thoughts?
IFILL:
I’m just glad to be there. I leave it to other people to talk about whether it’s the right mix or not. It’s such an honor to be invited to the ball. One of the things I keep in mind as I prepare for this is that I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom. There are a lot of smart people out there that could do this job, who would love to do this job. So I take it very seriously and don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what could have been. Right now this is what it is, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

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