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What Would Gabby Do?

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Speaking on Election Night 2010 in Tucson.  

Another irony in Giffords’s story is that before she was shot, she was thinking of leaving politics. She was torn. She knew how rare her skill was and believed she could make a difference; she sometimes talked about running for governor of Arizona. But she confided to close friends that her chosen business was wearing on her. When she voted for Obama’s health-care plan, someone either kicked or shot out the glass front door of her office. Her tea-party opponent in the last election had called her record “putrid” and even suggested she couldn’t read. Also, there was the constant need to raise money. “She was tired of looking at every stranger as an ATM,” a friend recalled, “wondering how much she could get out of them.”

What she craved, she once told her father, was “a normal life,” which didn’t seem possible given the demands of her and her husband’s careers. Kelly is an astronaut who’s long lived in Houston; the two saw each other maybe once every two or three weeks. “It was a flyby relationship,” said a staffer. In fact, it was managed in part by Giffords’s scheduler. “Marriage is a lot of work,” Giffords said.

And part of a normal life involved having a child. She was going to be 41, which meant it had to happen quickly. Kelly, half a dozen years older, was in less of a hurry—he already has two children from a previous marriage. But they’d come to an agreement: After his next shuttle mission, they would begin in vitro. Giffords had started to harvest eggs, giving herself hormone shots in the stomach in “dirty, filthy airplane bathrooms,” as she told a colleague. Kelly, who’d been treated for prostate cancer, had already stored sperm, and there were already fertilized eggs. But Giffords thought of her job as an impediment. “Nothing was ever black-and-white with Gabby,” says her friend Linda Lopez, “but she did not want to do it anymore. She wanted to have a normal life. She wanted to have a family. She told me she thought this term was going to be her last.”

Some Sunday nights, Giffords looked at her schedule and complained, “I can’t do it all. It’s too much,” to which her staff’s response was, “But you tell them all ‘yes,’ and then we’re stuck.” The weekend of the shooting, though, she’d noticed a hole in her schedule. Her staff set up a Congress on Your Corner event, an impromptu chance for constituents to meet their representative. Jared Loughner, an unmedicated schizophrenic, was one of the people who took notice.

Sometime after 11 a.m. Houston time, Carusone called Kelly at his home, where he was lecturing a daughter about her texting habits. Carusone said she had a terrible message to deliver. “I don’t know how to tell you this, except to tell you,” Carusone began. “Gabby’s been shot.”

Kelly hung up and then stared at his phone—he thought he could have been dreaming. He phoned Carusone back. “Did you just call me? What did you say?”

Soon, Kelly was on a plane provided by his friend Tilman Fertitta, owner of several nationwide chain restaurants and one of the richest people in Texas.

To Giffords’s friends, the pair couldn’t have been more different. Giffords was a kind of Tucson aristocrat, cultured and well-to-do and with access to select circles—one grade-school friend ran against her for Congress, and a high-school buddy helped manage her campaign. (“She had multimillionaires she could’ve married,” her father boasted.) Kelly grew up a blue-collar kid in West Orange, New Jersey, the son of two cops. And there were other dissonances, too. Giffords was attractive and vivacious, constantly making new friends, while Kelly, bald, short, and wide, seemed pleasant and supportive but distant. On his occasional campaign visits, he stood patiently in the background as Giffords held forth. Her friends could see that he was smitten. “She had it all. Beautiful, smart, hardworking, balanced, fun to be with, and she laughed at my jokes,” he once said. It was touching, though these same friends found his jokes a bit old-fashioned: “Have you guys ever packed a suitcase for your wife for a trip?” began one joke. “It’s perhaps the riskiest thing I’ve ever done.”

But their differences were part of their chemistry. “Secretly I think she wanted a macho guy,” said a friend. Around the office she called him “my sexy astronaut.” When they were dating, he’d told Giffords to look in the sky at a certain time, according to Tom Zoellner’s forthcoming book, A Safeway in Arizona. He flew an A-10 Thunderbolt II jet over Tucson and dipped his wing.


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