Last July, an injury temporarily sidelined multimedia political pundit, The Daily Beast columnist and author Eleanor Clift, preventing her from giving the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s final Barbara Vackar lecture.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, Clift will return to the Hall of Philosophy to deliver an updated version of that lecture, titled “Women in Politics: Our Time Has Come.”
“This is a time of women’s empowerment; of women CEOs,” Clift said in July 2018. “The #MeToo Movement has shocked aspects of society. This election, women are running at all levels of government. … Right now, if you have to predict, the Democrats seem to be in a good place to retake the House of Representatives — because of women.”
Clift, who grew up in Brooklyn, has proven to be one of Washington, D.C.’s most savvy political reporters and television pundits.
From an early age it was evident she had a way with words.
In 1953, at age 13, Clift wrote about “What the United Nations Means to Me” for an essay contest. She and another girl, Maddy Chaek, shared first prize.
The awards ceremony was held in a theater in Manhattan’s Times Square area. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the judges, and John Golden presented the awards.
“My older brother insists that pictures with Eleanor Roosevelt were taken on the roof of the UN,” Clift said. “(Roosevelt) commented on our similar surnames — Roeloffs and Roosevelt. I won $50. It made an impression on me.”
Clift was also photographed with UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and Elizabeth Impellitteri, the wife of the mayor of New York City.
Despite this auspicious start, a career enabling her to interact with first ladies, politicians and diplomats was not on Clift’s mind.
“For people of my generation, college was not a given,” she said. “My two older brothers went to (college) on the G.I. Bill. There was no expectation for a girl to go.”
Following high school, where she learned shorthand, Clift took a job in household finance and quickly decided it was not for her.
“In August, I went with my mother to Hofstra (University) — from Queens to Hempstead (on Long Island),” Clift said. “It was like going to Costa Rica because I didn’t go anywhere in those days.”
Nevertheless, Clift enrolled and commuted via the highway to her 8 a.m. classes in a 1952 Ford.
The following year, she switched to Hunter College, which was closer to home.
“I was on the verge of declaring a major in philosophy (when) life got in the way; I got married and pregnant,” Clift said.
Her first husband was William Clift (actor Montgomery Clift’s older brother), and her first child was the first of their three sons. William died of cancer in 1986.
“When I talk to people now, I say that college education is like high school education was before, in my day,” Clift said. “You need it now. For jobs, they weed out people without a degree. … (But) my tuition for Hofstra was $500. Now, we’re at the other end — what kind of major pays?”
While taking night courses at Hunter, Clift was also working in marketing for a small company. When she decided to quit, she went to an employment agency in Times Square, and was sent to Newsweek.
“The national affairs editor was looking for a secretary who would not use (the job) as a stepping stone to reporter,” Clift said. “He’d been interviewing women who’d graduated from the finest women’s colleges. I passed the shorthand test. He was convinced that I’d just be a secretary, and I didn’t have great aspirations.”
Her outlook soon changed.
“Suddenly I was in this environment with all these accomplished women,” Clift said. “I started during the fall (of 1963) when John Kennedy was assassinated and I was hooked on the news. I became a researcher.”
When her husband, who was in the advertising business, was transferred to Atlanta, she said she became a “Girl Friday” there for Newsweek.
In 1970, Eleanor Holmes Norton successfully filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of 60 female Newsweek staff against the news magazine’s policy of only allowing men to be reporters.
“Because of the lawsuit, Newsweek offered internships (to women),” Clift said.
During the summer of 1971, she was promoted to reporter at the news magazine’s Atlanta bureau.
In the right place at the right time, Clift covered Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter during his campaign for the presidency.
“Nobody thought he would win,” she said. “I was like he was — the new kid on the block — when I went to Washington in December 1976 to cover him.”
Until 1985, when she left the news magazine for a year to work as The Los Angeles Times’ White House correspondent, Clift served as Newsweek’s White House correspondent.
Upon her return, she spent six years as a Congressional and political correspondent for Newsweek. In June 1992, she became Newsweek’s deputy Washington bureau chief.
Clift has covered every presidential election since 1976, and was part of Newsweek’s special project team after the 1984, 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections. Each project resulted in a book.
In the early 1980s, Clift had also begun working for the “Washington Week in Review,” the public affairs television program now called “Washington Week.”
“I was in the White House pool the day Reagan was shot,” Clift said. “‘Washington Week in Review’ invited me to talk. I was extremely nervous. Then I began thinking that was self-serving. I had seen (White House Press Secretary) Jim Brady lying on the sidewalk. So that got me over my stage fright. It’s not about me, it’s about the other.”
In part because of her TV experience, Diane Rehm invited Clift to be a Friday week-in-review panelist on “The Diane Rehm Show,” which was broadcast in D.C. on WAMU-FM.
Clift was also a regular panelist on the nationally syndicated television show, “The McLaughlin Group,” where until John McLaughlin’s death in August 2016, she provided the lone progressive voice on the otherwise staunchly conservative panel.
“I’d done that combat show for 30 years (before) it was sidelined during the 2016 election,” said Clift. “… We have gotten a deal with Maryland public television to restart the ‘Group’ in September, and if successful, Maryland will offer it to other PBS stations in January.”
In 2005, Clift joined Douglas Cohn, who in 1999 had taken the helm of “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” the syndicated column established in 1932 by Drew Pearson. Its focus shifted to commentary with a historical perspective.
When Newsweek merged with the news and opinion website, The Daily Beast, Clift wrote for both publications. In 2013, The Daily Beast sold Newsweek. Clift stayed with the former, “betting on its digital future as opposed to the shrinking world of print journalism.”
In addition, Clift provides insights on the “Michelangelo Signorile Show” each Friday; has appeared in several major motion pictures as herself, including “Getting Away with Murder” and “Independence Day”; and teamed up with Roy Neel in 2016, to host the “Fed Up!” podcast, featuring guests from the political left and right.
Despite her comfort with multiple forms of media and “televised food fights,” writing is Clift’s preferred medium.
“The written word is always what requires the most thought, polish and time,” Clift said. “I realize it’s not as popular because of the time, but (it gives me) the most satisfaction. … Cable TV has so exploded that sometimes I look at people and ask, ‘How do they get their written work done? How do they keep themselves … honest?’ ”
Clift is the co-author of five books and the sole author of two books: Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment, and Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death and Politics.
“I’ve felt for many years that I should write a memoir because I came in when women were really breaking into journalism,” Clift said. “But unless you’re Michelle Obama, it won’t work, I’m told.”
That said — she’s trying to come up with lessons for journalists.
Together, her articles “The Magazine that Was” and “ ‘Mad Men’ Goes Back to the Office” — which was published in Newsweek on March 19, 2012, and “won acclaim for capturing the era when women were relegated to the secretarial pool” — reveal an important piece of history.
Clift has found the time to serve on the advisory council of the International Women’s Media Foundation — of which she is a co-founder — and the board of the American News Women’s Club. She is also on the board of the nonprofit and advocacy group RespectAbility, and the advisory board for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.