On Jan. 8, 2011, a lone gunman walked into a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz., and began firing. When he finished, just a few minutes into his rampage, five men and women and a 9-year-old girl lay dead. Thirteen others were wounded, including the gunman’s principal target, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had been holding a meet-your-congresswoman get-together that Saturday morning.
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Anyone who saw the news that day remembers that Giffords—“Gabby” to her many friends and constituents—was at first reported among the dead. In truth, she survived, but at terrible cost. The first U.S. representative ever to be the direct target of an assassination attempt, she had been shot in the head and suffered a devastating brain injury.
Just a little more than six months later, writes Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, in the couple’s new memoir Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, his wife appeared with him at a NASA awards ceremony. It was characteristic of her to want to be there, he adds: “I had announced my retirement from NASA and the Navy a few days earlier, and Gabby knew this was her last chance to see me get a NASA award.”
Gabby tells many stories, all of them well. First, it is an affecting look at how two busy and ambitious people, relatively late in life, found each other and have managed to balance demanding careers and remain happily together, as clearly they are. That’s no small order, particularly when one partner is orbiting Earth and the other is surveying her home district along the U.S.-Mexico border on muleback, doing quite different jobs; awards ceremonies are one thing, while being screamed at by bulging-veined opponents of the TARP bailout or healthcare reform is quite another.
Second, it is a look at the business of politics from an exceptionally frank point of view. It is clear, too, that Kelly—who, for obvious reasons, does most of the narrating here, with the help of Jeffrey Zaslow—admires his wife immensely for her remarkable energies, Clintonesque political adroitness and ability to defuse fraught moments of debate and disagreement with a genuinely friendly smile. Those qualities are rare in politics, rarer in life, and they had served Giffords well as she moved from state legislator into Congress.
Still, Giffords found herself in a time when even the sincerest charm met with partisan hostility at an unusually fierce pitch. Her opponent in the 2010 race was fond of picturing himself with automatic weapons as an apparent sign of his toughness. Sarah Palin placed riflescope targets on outlines of Giffords’ district, proclaiming that it was time to “take aim at Democrats.” Even after the shooting, partisan divisions were not long in making themselves known. Kelly praises former President George H.W. Bush, who was out of office long before Giffords entered politics, for his decency in taking the time to visit her in her Houston hospital, while he also notes that Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, did not bother to do more than send a get-well card. That might have had something to do with Giffords’ having warned Boehner to stay out of her district instead of campaigning for her gun-toting Tea Party contender, but it does the Speaker of the House no credit.
Politics junkies will be interested to know, by the way, that that’s not the only bit of political news that Kelly lets slip in these pages.
In the end, though, this book transcends politics. It is really about the terrible events of Jan. 8 and their calamitous result, the horrifying things that drew Giffords into the national spotlight. Everything in the story turns on those few moments and the aftermath that she summarizes with a simple declaration: “It’s awful.”
Yes, but the gunman did not have the final word. The best part of the book is Kelly’s account of Giffords’ nearly miraculous recovery, day by day and step by step, from her opening an eye just days after the shooting, to her speaking a few halting words, to her taking the house floor to cast her vote in the great debt-ceiling impasse that unfolded in midsummer. She has improved even more in the days and weeks since she first returned to Capitol Hill, as the couple’s recent TV interviews have shown, and there is more recovery to come, as she says at several points, in a mantra born of a lifetime’s shunning of the path of least resistance, “Back to work.”
This book will not be the final word on Giffords’ story either. But everyone who reads this deeply inspiring story will be rooting for her and holding her to the words she voices in its closing sentence:
“I will get stronger. I will return.”
Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope is out this week.