by Eleanor Clift
As everybody pulls for Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords to fully recover from the bullet wound to her head, it's no accident that Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was there with Giffords for two milestones. She was in the hospital room in Tucson when Giffords opened her eyes for the first time, and early this week, Wasserman Schultz was in Houston, where Giffords is undergoing rehabilitation, when she spoke for the first time, asking for toast along with her oatmeal.
Their friendship is not political, it's personal, and Wasserman Schultz spent Sunday and Monday in Houston with Giffords, putting in the quality time that has allowed her to be present at such key moments. Speaking at the Washington Press Club dinner on Wednesday evening, Wasserman Schultz reminded the crowd that had come to hear newly elected members of Congress about the impact of the rampage that took six lives in Tucson and wounded Giffords. She said her daughter asked her if she was going to get shot at, and if Florida passes a law like Arizona's, "will they hate you, too?"
She said the night before she was shot, Giffords had e-mailed her friend, Kentucky Republican Trey Grayson, asking him in his new job as director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, to do what he could to lower the vitriol in political rhetoric. Wasserman Schultz said she has searched her soul to find the times when she's gone over the line, and speaking with evident emotion, she implored the audience of politicians, media and lobbyists to "dial it down."
The two women met when they were both on a legislative fellowship, before Giffords was elected to Congress. In 2006, Wasserman Schultz recruited Giffords to run. It was the same year she raised $17 million for Democrats, the third-highest sum after Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel. The Democrats took the majority in the '06 election, and Wasserman Schultz and her husband became fast friends with Giffords and her husband, vacationing together as families in New Hampshire.
When Gabby opened her eyes on Jan. 25, it was while Wasserman Schultz was talking about all the things they would do together once Gabby was well. Wasserman Schultz likened the emotion she felt then to how overcome she was by the births of her children. Being in the room for her friend's first spoken word surely touched those same heartstrings.
It is not like Wasserman Schultz has a whole lot of time on her hands, but she makes room for what she thinks is important. She shows the flag at just about every Democratic or media event, and she's always passionate and energetic. She seems incapable of just mailing it in. And with Nancy Pelosi sidelined as the face of the Democratic Party, she is ready always to step up when asked. Her enthusiasm is the tonic that demoralized Democrats need as they try to hold onto the gains made during President Obama's first two years, and fight their way back to the majority.
Wasserman Schultz is no stranger herself to life-changing challenges. Only 41 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she went through seven surgeries in 2008 to combat the disease, including a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. She spoke about it at a Gridiron dinner last year, saying that for those who speak Republican, "it's called repeal and replace," a takeoff on the GOP slogan to end Obamacare. She can joke about it now, but at the time she went through the treatments and the surgeries, she kept her battle a secret from all but her husband and her tight circle of women friends, relying on them to help her get through it.
In contrast, almost every step in Giffords' recovery has been made public, and by all accounts, her progress has been phenomenal. On this weekend's McLaughlin Group, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan said that if Giffords recovers sufficiently to return to public life, the Senate seat that Arizona Republican Jon Kyl plans to vacate in 2012 would be hers for the asking. Whatever the next milestone for Giffords, we know one thing, that Wasserman Schultz will be there.