Who was this woman who delivered the commencement speech heard ‘round the world?
Sacked New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson—speaking to thousands of graduates and their relatives Monday at Wake Forest University (and many thousands more of media-obsessives who watched her on cable or on the Web)—bore little resemblance to the harridan of her ex-boss’s conjurings.
“During her tenure,” Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. had written about Abramson in a stunning memo to his employees on Saturday, “I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”
Instead, the Jill Abramson who showed up this sunny morning in Winston-Salem, N.C., was warm, self-deprecating, approachable, funny, brave and tough—tough in a good way, considering the public mortification she had just undergone.
Also, she wasn’t “brusque.”
Her theme, appropriately, was “resilience,” and the Class of 2014, especially young women in the audience, rewarded her with a sustained standing ovation.
“What’s next for me? I don’t know,” she mused at one point with a game-faced grin. “So I’m exactly in the same boat as many of you!” That line—with its ironic twist that even the much-celebrated editor of the nation’s most powerful newspaper can suddenly be out of a job at age 60—got a big laugh. But then Abramson turned serious—and vulnerable. “And, like you, I’m a little scared, but also excited.”
She later claimed—apparently another joke—that she had just booked a session with Wake Forest’s career counselor.
These were Abramson’s first public comments since last Wednesday, when Sulzberger made the shocking announcement that he had dismissed the first female executive editor in the Times’s 161-year history after only 33 months on the job. So, naturally, the front row was crammed with journalists, almost enough to populate a presidential news conference, furiously scribbling in their notepads, hoping to gobble up whatever gobbets of meat were tossed their way.
“I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great university,” Abramson began, flashing a smile and elongating her vowels in her trademark Upper West Side drawl. “I’m impressed that your achievements have attracted so much media attention—as well they should.”
Another big laugh from the crowd.
At another point in her speech, Abramson recalled that seven years ago, she was almost killed when a truck ran over her near the Times building. “You may begin to call me ‘Calamity Jill,’” she noted.
Abramson’s message—which, unlike the disposable boilerplate of many such orations, is apt to be remembered for quite awhile by her audience—was the human capacity to bounce back from adversity, whether a lost job or the death of a child.
“Now I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped,” she said, “or not gotten the job you really wanted or felt the sting of those horrible rejection letters from grad school. You know the sting of losing.”
She added: “Losing a job you love hurts.”
Abramson recounted that her sister, who happens to be a successful children’s book author, phoned her last Thursday morning. “She said, ‘I know Dad would be as proud of you today as the day you became executive editor of The New York Times.’ I’d been fired the previous day so I knew what she was trying to say. It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and try to bounce back than to watch how we handled our successes. ‘Show what you are made of,’ he said.”
Abramson catalogued several examples of people who have overcome “soul-scorching loss” and showed what they are made of—including the mother of a boy who was killed last January by a New York taxi, and then launched a campaign to tighten traffic laws and make streets safer. Abramson also invoked Patrick Zuo, a member of the Times Beijing bureau, who was detained by authorities for several harrowing hours and immediately went back to work because “I did what I believed and that makes me fearless.” She also mentioned Anita Hill, who became a star law professor at Brandeis University after being grilled remorselessly by the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee—and was famously called “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”—in the Clarence Thomas confirmation imbroglio two decades ago.
Professor Hill, Abramson revealed, sent Abramson an “atta-girl” note last week, one of many she was grateful to receive.
Abramson also cited some of her heroes: “ground-breaking reporter” Nan Robertson of the Times and publisher Katharine Graham of The Washington Post. “They both faced discrimination in a much tougher, more male-dominated newspaper industry,” she said.
Reaction to Abramson’s speech among her fellow media mavens was mostly positive, as a Twitter roundup by the Mashable site indicated.
“BRAVO Jill Abramson,” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour tweeted. “With dignity, humour & feeling you showed Wake Forest grads how to adopt resilience in face of ‘soul-scorching loss.’ ”
Lydia Polgreen, the Times’s deputy international editor (and one of a group of women in the newsroom who saw Abramson as their role-model and rabbi), tweeted: “We all know this funny, smart, knowing Jill. I miss her. It is terrible that it ended this way.”
New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait was a bit of an outlier. “Abramson’s egomaniacal speech will leave these graduates unsure if they should reach for the stars,” he predicted on Twitter.
Abramson ended her speech by recalling what the poet Robert Frost told the graduates of Colby College in 1956, comparing life to unfinished business—“like the bits of knitting women used to carry around with them, to be picked up at different intervals.” She added: “My mother was a great knitter. She made some really magnificent things. But she also made a few itchy, frankly hideous, sweaters for me…You gorgeous, brilliant people,” Abramson exhorted, “get on with your knitting!”
By the way, Abramson, who likes to get herself tattooed when the occasion warrants, answered the big question on many media-obsessives’ minds: Will she remove the “T”—for Times—tattoo she had etched onto her back?
“Not a chance,” she announced.