It was 2002, and I was a 22-year-old freelance writer in Phoenix, struggling-and failing-to make a living covering Arizona politics. Giffords was a 31-year-old freshman in the state House of Representatives.
I let my ethics lapse because I couldn't cover my half of the lunch and because, I thought, what did it matter? I was going to have to bail out of journalism, anyway. Gabby, as she insisted I call her, was genuinely saddened by my pessimism; she fed me a few tips and encouraged me to hang on. I can't credit her with saving my career, but, as I obsessively refreshed my browser for news of her condition on Saturday, I realized the effect she had on me was profound.
We'd met while I was researching a story for Tucson Weekly. Being the inexperienced, fresh-out-of-college freelancer that I was, I made a foolish, foolish pitch that the alt-weekly immediately accepted. The legislative session had begun, and I promised to interview Pima County's entire delegation in two days. The problem was, I hadn't bothered to count how many legislators there were.
Eighteen. There were 18 law-making cats to herd as they raced between a state funeral, tribal meetings, lobbyist functions and bill-filing deadlines. While I had to ambush some legislators in the stairwells and parking lots, Giffords made it easy. She returned my calls, tracked me down in the lobby and ultimately sent a thorough and thoughtful e-mail laying out her game plan for the session. It was a well-rounded agenda that included environmental protection, anti-terrorism measures, privacy enhancements and tax breaks for small businesses.
In the years since I left Arizona, I continued to watch Giffords' career with admiration; her ascension to the state Senate, then Congress. She emerged as a Blue Dog Democrat who supported both healthcare reform and a woman's right to choose, while also backing gun-ownership rights and a hard-line stance on immigration. I thought to myself, She could run for president-like Hillary Clinton, Mark II. When she married her astronaut, I felt that twinkle of joy that the British must feel about Royal weddings.
Giffords had no reason to be kind to me. I wasn't a constituent in her district. I wasn't a big-shot political reporter with favor to be curried. I was just a young hack in a wrinkled shirt. She was just a leader.
It's sad that it took a shooting in Tucson for the country to realize the many ways Giffords exemplified American leadership and how leadership, as a trait, has little to do with party. I've watched local media, from the big broadcasters to the right-wing bloggers, look for every possible connection between Giffords and San Diego. It's as if everyone wants a little piece of her to be proud of. In a way, that's what this essay is for me.
I wish her a full recovery. The country needs her. And I owe her lunch.