In fact, as her own husband, Astronaut Mark Kelly pointed out when speaking on her behalf at last week’s congressional gun control hearings, she used to be a republican. During her 5 year term as the House Representative from Arizona’s 8th district, she was known as a “Blue Dog” Democrat, a group of relatively conservative legislators that caucused within their caucus and often caused their more progressive brethren significant consternation.
As a “Blue Dog,” she once referred to Arizona’s severe immigration “papers please” law as a “clear calling that the federal government needs to do a better job,” while stopping just short of supporting the legislation. In a greater irony, Giffords is actually a strong gun rights supporter. In 2008 she opposed tighter gun restrictions in Washington D.C. and signed a brief that was delivered to the Supreme Court supporting its overturn.
Does this mean that Giffords was not a good congresswoman or Democrat? Of course not. She also supported President Obama’s stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act despite hailing from a state where neither was popular. Those two positions nearly cost her reelection in 2010 when she narrowly beat back a fierce challenge by republican Jesse Kelly by barely 4,000 votes. What it does mean is that a lot of us who were unfamiliar with Giffords prior to the attempt on her life by Jared Loughner in a Tucson Supermarket really don’t know a lot about her career in congress prior to nearly being assassinated.
It’s been much easier for those of us in the media and/or with progressive leanings to think of her as a more left leaning politician than she truly was. Clearly, that opinion is far removed from the facts. Facts that not only make her much more fascinating than she already is, but also make her a near perfect vessel within which to deliver a message of tighter, more reasonable gun control advocacy. Sure, having Nancy Pelosi or Dianne Feinstein push for stiffer gun regulations is nice, but to have someone who has been not only victimized by gun violence, but also a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment brings not only sympathy for her injuries to the table, but gravitas as well.
Despite her past positions on gun rights and the severe nature of her injuries, she continues to push forward. Let’s talk about those injuries for a moment. After having a bullet pass through her brain, Giffords’ has suffered a significant loss of movement on her right side as well as partial vision loss in her left eye and still experiences great difficulty speaking. Arguably, she shouldn’t even be alive after being shot in the head from close range. The path of the bullet in some ways could not have been more fortuitous–if a bullet wound could ever be described in such a way. As hard as it is to believe, had the bullet gone through her brain at only a slightly different angle, she would have been left in much worse condition.
There are few things more admirable than a public figure suffering from a debilitating infirmity who does not hide. Whether it’s Muhammad Ali or Michael J. Fox and their battles with Parkinson’s or Giffords and her brain injury, one would have to conclude that it would be so much easier to live out your life more privately while suffering from such a malady. When you are a public figure, everyone remembers the way you were, when you were healthy. While none of the three people mentioned have any reason to feel embarrassed, you could understand if they did. How many of us could behave with such grace after such a significant change in ability? The frustration must be enormous.
This is what truly makes Giffords so courageous. The will to continue even though movement, sight, and speech are deeply impaired. As a legislator, she was a wonderful communicator. Indeed, that was what she was doing the day she was shot, holding what she called “congress on a corner” at that Tucson supermarket. She was reaching out to her constituents in such a way as to leave no dividing line, and nearly paid for that proximity with her life.
This is who Gabby Giffords was and is. A centrist “Blue Dog” Democrat who through experience and misfortune has found herself recovering from the fight of her life only to take on a new battle even while left in a cognitive and physically diminished state. She is extraordinary. She is beautiful. She is however not simple. A fact that should only enhance our estimation, not lower it.