There was Walter Cronkite during the Vietnam War, and Ted Koppel during the Iran Hostage Crisis. I’m not sure who it was during 9/11. Maybe Jim Lehrer? Or Jon Stewart? In any case, I want to nominate Judy Woodruff as the calming, thoughtful presence on television that the country has needed for the COVID pandemic and the racial and political unrest of the past year.
Woodruff is the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour, about the only TV news I allow myself to watch, except during breaking events. For the first three years of the Trump administration, I wouldn’t watch any news at all, but when COVID came along, I decided I should supplement my reading of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Andy Borowitz. I find Judy Woodruff, who has worked in TV news for almost 45 years, to have just the right demeanor and presentation for these times. It comes from such a breadth of experience, I believe.
Her slight bone structure suggests fragility; the way she asks her questions suggests anything but.
She is serious, but elegant. She is smart but doesn’t need to prove it to guests or viewers. She’s polite but will press a guest if she’s not getting an answer. Her slight bone structure suggests fragility; the way she asks her questions suggests anything but. Unlike so many newscasters, she is not prone to hyperbole and drama, and God knows we didn’t need any more of that this year. On the regular Friday evening memorial for those we’ve lost to COVID, she seems genuinely wounded by the losses but in a quiet way, not in an overly sentimental display.
One element I appreciate most is that she doesn’t have the practiced newsreader speech modulation. In anchor speak, words are emphasized in a way that doesn’t mirror the natural rhythms of speech. Think of the “announcer voice,” such as the one Ted Baxter used in an exaggerated way in the Mary Tyler Moore show; any degree of it gives the speaker an air of insincerity. Somehow, Woodruff hits the balance of sounding sincere, professional, inquisitive, and casual at the same time.
Judy Woodruff by the Books
I’ve also grown very fond of the bookshelf in her house that serves as the backdrop when she gives the news in these COVID times. I’ve studied it for an insight into her personality. She seems to be a Civil War buff. Directly to the left of her head is a book spine that says “Grant” and below that a book about Gettysburg. She’s a fan of the historian Jon Meacham. She has one of his books on the first President Bush and also one entitled The Soul of America. There are also books on Reagan, Carter, and Andrew Jackson, and I guess knowing your presidents is part of the job.
I do wish, however, that there were some personal titles, some novels or short story collections. I guess as close as we’re going to get to a personal book is one entitled The Baseball Whisperer, which makes me think she likes the sport. Then I remember that she met her husband, writer Al Hunt, at a softball game between journalists and staff of the Carter presidential campaign in Plains, Georgia, in 1976. So yes, baseball and its iterations probably have an emotional element for her.
Sometimes there’s a small globe on the bookshelf, and in the fall, she put out Halloween decorations. Lately, there’s a photo of a toddler on top of the “Grant” book.
The best item on her shelf, however–one I look at every single day–is an old photo down in the bottom right corner: it’s of her husband at a much younger age, and a young boy with his head turned toward the camera. It looks as if the two are on a bus and the boy’s name had just been called before the camera shutter clicked, distracting him from looking out the window. I like to imagine why it’s so special to Woodruff. She and her husband have three children–a son born with spina biffada, another son, and a daughter adopted from Korea. Was the family on a fabulous trip somewhere? Or does she like the unguarded look on her son’s face? Or is it because her husband looks particularly handsome in this shot?
It seems I’m not the only one who appreciates Judy Woodruff. A woman named Megan runs a blog called, “What’s Judy Woodruff Wearing?” She describes it as “semi-regular assessment of Judy’s sartorial choices” and notes, among other predelictions, her affinity for the color blue. How cool that Woodruff, at nearly 75 years old, has a site devoted to her style?
How cool that Woodruff, at nearly 75 years old, has a site devoted to her style?
Here’s a recent entry: “Judy wore her Escada Sunburst [above] for the counting of the Electoral College vote. Little did she know she would be wearing it for hours and hours while reporting on domestic terrorism. She looked like a million bucks the entire time!”
I believe that women are never one thing–even though society likes to reduce us to a single dimension. A woman can have covered every presidential election since 1976 and still care about the neckline of her dress. A woman can emit anguish at the cruelty of a natural disaster and still sternly correct someone who is trying to push a less-than-honest agenda. A woman can read weighty books about the state of our union (or dis-union) and still melt at the way a husband or son meets her eye.
We’re lucky that such a woman comes to us every night to tell us about the world in a way that keeps our hearts from breaking.