Politics

Giffords rising: Triumphant return of a downed Congresswoman

By Richard Poplak 2 August 2011

It’s almost as if your six-year-old took a teleprompter and mixed up the news: “The nice lady got shot in the face. Then her husband went to space. Now she’s fine.” Strange as it sounds, this is, in summary, the story of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s year thus far. Yesterday, she made a triumphant return to Washington to vote on the debt-ceiling bill. It’s one of the most remarkable stories in recent US politics. By RICHARD POPLAK.

In what may be remembered as the last show of bipartisan unity in a bitterly divided America, every last politician in Congress yesterday leapt to their feet in applause as a slim, dark-haired woman entered the House. It was 41-year-old Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, who, by the laws of intent, physics, metaphysics and medicine, should no longer be with us. As this “ghost” walked into the chamber, with two minutes remaining to vote on what may be the worst bill in recent US history, we were reminded that even at our most awful, there is something about human beings that is worth all the fuss.

We’re in the dog days of winter, but we should take a moment to consider 2011’s vicissitudes. Mere moments, at least in news-cycle terms, following a mini-massacre on 8 January at a supermarket in Arizona, the Arab Spring erupted and we were swept down the rabbit hole of accelerated history. So much has happened over the course of the last eight months it’s difficult to recall the precise species of horror that greeted the January shooting, which was an attempt on a US politician’s life, and thus a botched assassination.

Gabrielle Dee “Gabby” Giffords has lived the American life. She is the product of a Jewish/Christian Scientist home, but identifies herself as Jewish. She’s been to both Cornell and Harvard, ran the family tyre business until it was sold to Goodyear, and became the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona senate in 2002. A Southern Democrat, she laboured under the aegis of the Bush administration, but managed to wade successfully through an era when bipartisan cooperation wasn’t considered a cardinal sin, as much as the responsibility of elected representatives whose job was to make government work for their constituents.

She won her first campaign for the US Congress in 2006, riding endorsements from establishment Brahmin like Tom Daschle and Bill Clinton. She won 54% of the vote, running on an immigration reform platform. Her district, in those long ago days, leaned blue, but by the time her third election came around in 2010, she faced staunch opposition from a Tea Party candidate named Jesse Kelly. Kelly, unrelated to Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly (more on him in a moment), was an Iraq War veteran, and heavily touted by the Tea Party. Sarah Palin, through her political action committee, SarahPAC, “targeted” a range of politicians, one of whom was Giffords. Pictured behind the crosshairs of an imaginary (one hopes) gun sight, a raft of Democrat candidates were slated to fall. Giffords sneaked into Congress by a margin of 1%.

Famously, Giffords did fall. On a winter’s morning outside Tucson, at a Safeway supermarket, the congresswoman was undertaking her first “Congress On Your Corner” event of the new year. Enter Jared Lee Loughner, resident maniac, who approached the gathering and started firing away with a Glock 9mm pistol. The day before the shooting, on his MySpace page, Loughner had posted: “Goodbye friends. Please don’t be mad at me. The literacy rate is below 5%. I haven’t talked to one person who is literate. I want to make it out alive. The longest war in the history of the United States. Goodbye. I’m saddened with the current currency and job employment. I had a bully at school. Thank you. P.S.—plead the fifth!”

This was not a stable young man, and in the roiling post-election political environment, with emotions jacked up to 11 and the imagery of violence used to debase rivals on the other side of the aisle, Loughner had found a medium for his rage. He hit 20 people that day, killing six, including a nine-year-old girl, and a conservative US district court judge. Giffords took a bullet in the head, a “kill shot” that should have ended her life instantly. Stunned politicians took a second to hold off on the rancour, the nation mourned, and President Obama paid a visit, noting—with a touch of the Messianic—that Giffords opened her eyes that day. It seemed as if the political temperature would lower somewhat.

Fat chance. Sarah Palin derided the “blood libel” to which she was subjected after the “lamestream” media implicated her in the shooting due to her crosshairs caper. (The use of the term “blood libel” is instructive: Remember that Giffords is Jewish, and Palin’s modus operandi, like all populists, is to hijack the historical suffering of the victim and claim it as her own.) Over the course of the year, Washington calcified into a place where divisions were not something to overcome, but to celebrate.

Meanwhile, Giffords suffered through the agonies of rehab. When her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was launched into orbit on the penultimate Nasa space shuttle mission in mid-May, she was there to watch. She wore his wedding ring and he hers. On 15 June, she was released from hospital and returned home. On 1 August, she returned to Washington and voted in favour of raising the debt-ceiling limit.

One wonders if, like the rest of us, Congresswoman Giffords doesn’t feel she has emerged from the fog of coma into a nonsensical, surrealist interpretation of the real world. Up is down, down is up, and in the aphasic hiccups that pass for political discourse, it seems we’ve collectively lost our noodles. One wonders if she wouldn’t rather return to the protective darkness of sleep. “I had to be here for this vote,” she said. “I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy.

“I have closely followed the debate over our debt ceiling,” she added, “and have been deeply disappointed at what’s going on in Washington. I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics.” One imagines sane Americans couldn’t agree more.

This brings Gabrielle Giffords’s year to its mid-point, and ours along with it. She was yesterday applauded by Tea Party poster-girl Michele Bachmann and feted by vice president Joe Biden. She is the victim of a moment of senseless violence that nonetheless functions as a metaphor for the state of her country. She embodies, in her experience, our species at best, and at worst. Her Twitter feed read: “The Capitol looks beautiful. I am honored to be at work tonight.” It would be nice to see Washington through her eyes. DM


U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) (C) waves as she stands with colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives, moments after the House voted to raise the U.S. borrowing limit, in Washington in this still image taken from video August 1, 2011. Giffords returned to the House floor on Monday for the first time since she was shot in the head in January, receiving a thunderous ovation from Democrats and Republicans alike. Giffords, a Democrat who has not been to Washington since the shooting at a political event in her home state of Arizona, returned to vote in favor of a bill to raise the U.S. debt ceiling and avoid default. REUTERS/House TV

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