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What Would Gabby Do?

After the shooting, Gabby Giffords needed help to be herself—and her astronaut husband led the team.

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Paintings by Nick Lepard  

Since her shooting, Gabby Giffords has been an idea as much as a person. What the people around her needed most was precisely what they didn’t have, which was her guidance. Giffords had always been a gifted politician. After she was shot by a crazed gunman outside a Tucson supermarket in January, she became something more: a national symbol of hope and of triumph over the dark forces in American politics.

What was needed was a way of keeping the symbol and the person together, parts of one whole. Gabby Giffords’s survival was nothing short of a miracle—but it left huge questions as to who she was and who she might become. Months into her recovery, she still struggled to speak. And yet her office, and her status, demanded that her views be made known. There was no template for dealing with such a set of circumstances. And so intertwined with the story of Gabby Giffords’s recovery is one about how her staff and her husband learned to answer these questions for her.

Outside the University Medical Center, where Giffords was first treated, the media seemed to materialize out of thin air. C. J. Karamargin, her communications director, arrived at the Giffords district office on Monday, January 10, two days after the shooting; in the course of one day, it had received nearly a thousand messages from the press. The hospital’s staff and her doctors had been in charge of dealing with the media since Giffords arrived. They informed the assembled reporters that her progress was remarkable. She appeared to understand simple commands almost immediately, had opened her eyes, and even recognized her husband’s presence within days—­developments that seemed to signal she was on her way to a rapid and reasonably complete recovery, an incredible prognosis given the nature of her injury: a gunshot wound in the left side of her head.

But impressive as her progress was, she was a long way from being able to communicate her desires. Karamargin wondered whether it was right to even open the office, a stubby corner brick building—newly sensitized, he noticed the large exposed windows and lack of security. He talked it over with her staff, and they decided that Giffords would have opened the office; one of her core principles was that no matter the circumstances, tending to constituents was a responsibility that couldn’t be evaded.

Less than two weeks later, another such dilemma arose when Giffords was ready to leave Tucson for rehab in Houston. Should they publicize her route out of town? Her chief of staff, Pia Carusone, who’d rushed in from Washington, was against it. Her political people agreed. Their sense at that point was that the media were driving the story, and they didn’t want that. The media were hungry for an image of Giffords being wheeled into an ambulance. But her staff didn’t want Giffords’s story to be one of illness. “We don’t need the media to know,” said Carusone.

But then Carusone canvassed Team Giffords, the informal council making Giffords’s decisions. The chairperson of this highly unofficial Gabby Giffords committee quickly became Mark Kelly, Giffords’s husband. And he was unequivocal: “Gabby should not sneak out of town,” he wrote in an e-mail. Her route was made public.

After Giffords was put into the ambulance and slowly driven to a local Air Force base, the wisdom of Kelly’s decision became apparent. Rather than a cat-and-mouse game with the national media, her departure became the occasion for an authentic outpouring of emotion. Hundreds of people lined the roads, carrying signs of love and holding aloft images of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Many politicians seem to be products of a committee. Another of the many ironies in the story of Gabby Giffords is that before the shooting, she seemed as unscripted as a politician could be, “open and happy and warm and genuinely interested in people, not just pretend interested,” said one friend. But after the shooting, being Gabby Giffords, the person the public was clamoring for, was a job that required several people, including, most importantly, her husband.

Giffords is being reintroduced to the world this week, with an hourlong Diane Sawyer special and a 575,000-copy first printing of Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, a co-memoir with her husband, along with a co-author, Jeffrey Zaslow. Soon, though not immediately, Giffords will have to decide if she plans to seek another term in the House. And if she can’t, or won’t, things may evolve within Giffords’s entourage. Because Giffords and her people really are a team—that’s a legacy of the tragedy. And there has been speculation that if Giffords decides that she’s not yet ready to run for office, her husband could fill the role, given the practice he’s had at channeling his wife. Many Democrats, both in Arizona and Washington, would welcome that.


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