Gabrielle Giffords is Republic’s Arizonan of the Year

Dec. 28, 2011 06:50 PM
The Arizona Republic

It began almost a year ago. Horror struck instantly. Courage endured through a painstaking recovery that was powered by love and astonishing doses of determination.

What happened to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is well known. It has been humbling and inspiring to see her beat the odds every step of the way back. But it isn’t just one person’s story.

Her hero’s journey brought Arizonans together and provided a powerful model for how the state can continue its own journey.

That’s why Giffords was an easy choice as The Arizona Republic’s Arizonan of the Year.

The outpouring of love that manifested itself as a vast shrine in front of the University of Arizona Medical Center after the Jan. 8 shooting was about more than candles, flowers, poems and pictures. It was about the soul of our state.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva arrived on the same day to walk along the edges of that sprawling, impromptu shrine. This was the real Arizona. Not a divided, angry state. A place where people care about each other. On the morning of the shooting, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake drove down to Tucson to join many others waiting for news outside the hospital.

It was an appropriate tribute to Giffords’ style.

She built her political career on civility and respect, along with hard work and keen intellect. She did it with an appealing combination of flair and sincerity. Giffords made public service sparkle.

She was a Democrat who won elections in a swing border district by showing conservative ranchers that she cared about their concerns. She was shot at a Congress on Your Corner event, a time set aside to listen to the people she represented.

Giffords started the year discussing civility at a New Year’s Renaissance Week retreat. The day before she was shot, she sent an e-mail to Republican Trey Grayson, who had been named to head Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. “We need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down,” she wrote.

The shooting that killed six people and wounded 13, including the congresswoman, sparked its share of intemperate comments and accusations. But the young man who fired off an astonishing number of bullets in a startlingly short time was not politically motivated. His own personal demons, not angry political rhetoric, apparently pushed Jared Loughner over the edge.

It was because of Giffords’ work on behalf of civility that the shooting inspired efforts such as creation of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona. The conversation continues. The Arizona Republic and 12 News challenged young people to offer their prescriptions for toning down the rhetoric. The winning essays in that contest will run in The Republic Jan. 1, and the winners will discuss their ideas with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Jan. 4 at 7 p.m. on Channel 12.

Giffords has made amazing progress since the shooting. Miraculous, some say. She continues her recovery in the face of the unknown. How much? How far? How complete?

Her seemingly charmed life as the beautiful, accomplished congresswoman with the astronaut husband has become a struggle to fully recover the power of language, which had been among her special gifts. A politician fighting for words. The Energizer Bunny learning to walk again, slowly, with that loving husband at her side. Nobody doubts she’ll keep going.

If they make another movie called “True Grit,” it ought to be about Gabby Giffords.

And if Arizona takes a collective lesson from her story — beyond the obvious one about the power of love and the human spirit — it ought to be that real courage is about ignoring odds, believing in yourself and daring to trust that hard work will pay off in the future.

Gabrielle Giffords is an example of that kind of strength and resilience, and a model for Arizona. She’s the Arizonan of 2011.

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