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What Would Gabby Do?

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The helicopter transferring Giffords to a Houston-area hospital on January 21.  

Gabby Giffords hadn’t set out to be a symbol—or even a politician. She was “Little Miss Overachiever,” her mother joked. Giffords came from a long line of overachievers. Her grandfather, Akiba Hornstein, was the son of a Lithuanian rabbi who arrived in Arizona, changed his name to Gif Giffords, and opened a tire store just as America embraced the highway system. Gabby’s father expanded the business into a chain of eleven stores. Gabby went to Scripps College in California, then picked up a master’s degree in regional planning at Cornell. Then she landed a high-paying job at Price Waterhouse in New York. “It seemed like the beginning of a grand and glittering adventure in the big city,” she later recalled in a Scripps commencement speech. “Posh apartments, pointy-toed shoes, and maybe even my first martini.”

But when Price Waterhouse offered her a job being a business emissary to Latin America, putting to use her fluent Spanish, the offer precipitated a crisis. Her father, Spencer, told me that he advised her to take it. “Dad, I’ve had thirteen different addresses in the last thirteen years,” she said. “I’ve lived in Europe, Mexico. I want to settle down. I want a place of my own.”

And so a little while later, Spencer called his daughter back with a new plan. “I’d worked for 45 years, six days a week. I was beginning to fall apart. I said, ‘Why don’t you work at the tire company?’ ”

Before the shooting, “she told me this term was going to be her last,” a friend said.

Giffords and her father had a strong, though sometimes contentious, relationship. He was a famously cranky, gruff old man. Robert Reich, Clinton’s secretary of Labor and one of Giffords’s political mentors, once told the press that she might be presidential material some day, a compliment noted by her father. “Oh, no,” he told her. “You’d never be qualified for that.”

And so Gabby said she’d accept the offer, Spencer recalled, “on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“That you get out.”

“I handed her the keys,” Spencer told me.

At 27, she was back in Tucson, a comfortable town where a person with talent could more readily make her mark. She was president of El Campo Tires, an unglamorous business that she dove into with characteristic enthusiasm. But she didn’t see herself as a tire magnate. “After the company sells, I want to run for office,” she told a friend in the mid-nineties. Giffords, youthful and attractive and with a wide smile, appeared on TV commercials in her cowboy boots, pumping up sales. But her main concern was to get the business in shape to sell—the day of the independent tire dealer had passed. In 1999, two years after she joined El Campo, it was sold to Goodyear.

The commercials turned out to be a showcase and proving ground for her political appeal. The next year, the state legislative district where her parents live opened up, and Giffords was off, “Gabbifying” people, as one political partner put it—she was the most naturally charming politician anyone in Arizona could remember. David Bradley, a state legislator with her, recalls how she lit up a room. “Here comes the rock star,” he said. She hugged, touched, was good with names and biographical details, and always collected business cards. Whoever she spoke to was soon convinced that he was the only person in the world. Said Linda Lopez, another fellow legislator, who later roomed with her, “She never met a stranger.” Liberal voters swooned over her social ideals and her habit of punctuating missives with quotes from Coleridge and Paul Bowles.

But she also won over conservative ranchers. For them, she printed up brochures with, as one campaign aide wrote, “hokey Old West typography and photos of herself riding a horse”—which she’d learned to do in private lessons. “An Arizona original,” they read. She made sure people knew she owned a Glock. In 2002, she became the youngest woman in the history of the State Senate. Then, in 2005, her congressman, Republican Jim Kolbe, announced he would retire.

A friend called Giffords the minute she heard. “I’m running, I’m running,” Giffords shouted. Her district leaned Republican, but Kolbe had been a moderate, too, and she won by a comfortable margin, 25,000 votes. And in 2007, at age 36, she entered Congress, the first female Jewish U.S. representative in Arizona history.

At the time of the shooting, Kelly was planning to wrap up his space career with a final mission: He’d command the last trip of the shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station. The shooting put his plans on hold. He took time off from NASA and stayed by Giffords’s side, a steadfastly optimistic and loving presence. “She will make a full recovery. I know her really well. She’s going to come back stronger and more committed than ever,” he said two weeks after the shooting, as if he might will her back to health.


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