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Posted at 9:47 AM ET, 01/13/2011

White House transcripts: Wasserman Schultz, Gillibrand, Gibbs on Giffords opening her eye

By Debbi Wilgoren

By far the most dramatic moment of President Obama's speech at a Tucson memorial service Wednesday night was when he recounted how Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had opened her unbandaged eye a short time earlier, urged on by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and close friends Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Hours later, flying back to Washington on Air Force One, Wasserman Schultz and Gillibrand briefed reporters on their visit with Giffords, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs explained more about how the president heard what had happened when he rode with Kelly from the hospital to the memorial service. Here is some of what Wasserman Schultz, Gillibrand and Gibbs told reporters:

Gillibrand and Wasserman Schultz:

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Okay, well, I'll go, and then you'll go -- okay. Well, we were very excited that we were even going to have the chance of getting to visit her hospital room. We didn't know when we first came whether we had that opportunity. And so when we did have the chance, we were so excited to get to see her. And when we came in the room, the doctor was there, her parents were there, Mark is there, and the Speaker -- Speaker Pelosi and Debbie and I went in.

And we just were so excited, so we were telling her how proud we were of her and how she was inspiring the whole nation with her courage and with her strength. And then Debbie and I started joking about all the things we were going to do after she got better. And we were holding her hand and she was responding to our hand-holding. She was rubbing our hands and gripping our hands so we could -- she could really -- we knew she could hear and understand what we were saying and she moved her leg, and so we knew she was responding. And the more we joked about what we were going to do, she started to open her eyes literally.

And then you have to recognize, her eyes hadn't opened -- we didn't know that -- and so she started to struggle. And one of her eyes is covered with a bandage because it was damaged in the gunfire. So her eye is flickering. And Mark sees this and gets extremely excited. And we didn't -- I didn't know what that meant. And so he said, Gabby, open your eyes, open your eyes. And he's really urging her forward. And the doctor is like perking up and everyone is coming around the bed. And she's struggling and she's struggling and it's a good -- we couldn't figure it out, maybe 30 seconds, where she's really trying to get her eyes open, like doing this, this, this.

And then she finally opens her eyes and you could she was like desperately trying to focus and it took enormous strength from her. And Mark could just -- can't believe it. I mean, he's so happy. And we're crying because we're witnessing something that we never imagined would happen in front of us.

And so Mark says, he says -- he said, Gabby, if you can see me, give us the thumbs up, give us the thumbs up. And so we're waiting and we're waiting and --


SENATOR GILLIBRAND: And we just thought, okay -- and you could watch -- when you're watching her eyes, she's really trying to focus. Like you could see she hadn't opened her eyes in days. And then instead of giving the thumbs up, she literally raises her whole arm like this -- like this. It was unbelievable. And then she reaches out and starts grabbing Mark and is touching him and starts to nearly choke him -- she was clearly trying to hug him.

And so like -- she was -- it was such a moment. And we were just in tears of joy watching this and beyond ourselves, honestly. And then Mark said, you know, touch my ring, touch my ring. And she touches his ring and then she grabs his whole watch and wrist. And then the doctor was just so excited. He said, you don't understand, this is amazing, what's she's doing right now, and beyond our greatest hopes.

And so then they decided we had to go because it was a lot -- (laughter) -- of excitement for her and it was -- we just told her how proud we were and how much we loved her and said we'd visit soon.

But, Gabby, you should describe a little about how you felt --

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: You know what, she keeps -- she's been calling me Gabby the whole day. (Laughter.)

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Debbie has to tell you --

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: That's the sixth time she's called me Gabby. (Laughter.)

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Debbie has to tell you about what she said after because the way she -- the way Debbie phrased it was I thought very amazing.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: It was just -- really, it felt like a miracle. It felt like we were watching a miracle. And Kirsten is totally right -- we just both wanted so badly to be there for her as her friends. We wanted to do -- we wanted to be there for Mark and for her parents. And just the strength that you could see just flowing out of her to get -- it was like she was trying to will her eyes open. It was just -- I mean, it felt --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Debbie, you should say about -- when you had your children -- that it was like the only experience that's similar is when you have a child.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Exactly. The only way I could describe the feeling that we had, that I had, was other than the birth of my kids, this was the most incredible feeling, to see literally your -- one of your closest friends just struggle to come back to you, to come back to her family, to come back to her friends. I mean, we know how strong Gabby is and you could see all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: And to tell us she's there. Like she was -- it was -- you imagine this when you watch a movie, but it's like she wanted to tell us, I'm here, I can hear you, I'm with you, and I appreciate everything you're doing.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: We told her -- when Kirsten was talking to her, she said -- because she and her husband had just gone and had pizza with Gabby and Mark, so she said, you know, come on -- come on, Gabby, you got to get going here, we're going to go out for pizza. The last couple of summers, Gabby and Mark and Mark's kids have vacationed with my family and I in New Hampshire. And I said, Gabby, we fully expect you to be up and ready to go to come back up to New Hampshire this summer, and that's when she started to open her eye. And the Speaker was talking to her this whole time. We just kept alternately talking to her.

And literally the doctor said, no, you don't understand, this is really, really significant progress. He starts pounding out a message on his BlackBerry. Her mother and father are just crying. When we -- when they finally pretty much kicked us out because, you know, obviously --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: It was a lot of excitement.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: A lot of excitement, she had to rest. We told her how much we loved her and we'd be back to see her and whatever she needed us to do, we'd be here for her. And we went out, Dr. Lemole, who is the one that's been on TV and has been so good about explaining everything, he literally said to us, you know, I've discounted -- on TV, I've discounted emotion being -- and friendship and family -- really, I've sort of discounted that as meaningless out loud. He said, I just witnessed the impact of friendship and what you guys -- he said, you did this here today.
Q And just real quick, which hand were you holding?

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: I was holding her left hand.

Q And it was you who was holding the hand?


REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULT: We were alternating holding her hand.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: I'll show you what she was doing -- I'll demonstrate it on your hand. ... So this is Gabby's hand and I'm just holding it like this and her hand -- she kept doing this, she kept going like that, like her thumb was reacting. And then she squeezed, like she totally was present in every way.

Q And then when she lifted up her arm, that was her right arm?

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: The same one. Same arm. She lifted it up like this -- it was like a whole hand thumbs up.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: And he was trying to -- he kept telling her, if you can see -- he said, Gabby, if you can see me, give me a thumbs up sign, give me the thumbs up sign. And then she went -- she pulled up her whole arm.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Whole hand, like that.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Actually, they wanted her to calm down --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: They're untying her arm because when she started to move more --

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: -- involuntary movements --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: -- they wanted to give her the freedom to move so -- her hand had been secured. They unsecured it so she could move freely, and that's when she brought the whole arm up to do her thumb up. Because they don't want her to take the --

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: The neck tube. She was going back to reach for the breathing tube.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Yes, she obviously doesn't like the breathing tube.


Q Could you talk a little bit about the friendship between -- among the three of you and how you got to know each other? We talked on the phone about this the other day a little bit, but I'd be interested in knowing a little bit more from you guys about the bond that you share.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I think I told you the other day, I mean, there's very few of us --


REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: -- young women who -- so we naturally gravitate to each other. And Kirsten and I were -- I was assigned as Kirsten's mentor when she --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Before I ran for office in 2006, I called Debbie and she gave me advice about what was it like to have young children and serve in Congress. So Debbie was instrumental in making me feel comfortable before I even ran for office to be able to know that I could be a good mom and a good legislator at the same time.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: So literally right from when I was elected, these were my two girlfriends. I mean, I met Gabby before I was elected, Kirsten before she was elected -- or Gabby before she -- both of them before they were elected....

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: So that's how we -- so were entwined in many ways. But Gabby and I were on Armed Services together as freshmen members after we won in 2006. And what I admired about her so much is the way she brought something different to our committee. I always complimented Speaker Pelosi because one way she transformed Congress was she put five women on the Armed Services Committee all at one year. And our nature of our questions were always different.

And one thing Gabby always focused on was the well-being of the troops and their families. And she would talk about how she'd be talking about the troops with the doctor at the military base where she represents, and he would always say, I'm concerned about sending these men and women back into harm's way when they're not mentally or physically ready. And so I'd often bring up her stories as evidence that women in Congress matter because we have a different perspective.

And then I always wanted to get our husbands together because a lot of -- some of the women don't have their husbands in D.C., and so -- and as you know, Gabby's husband is an astronaut so he travels all the time. So we always talk about, we got to double date, double date, double date. So we started to do these double dates and her husband is one of the most charming men in the world. He's not only brilliant and fascinating and an astronaut, but he's a nice person and they love each other so clearly.

And what they seem to enjoy most about each other as a couple is how interesting each other -- each of the other one is. And so they take their New Years and they go to the renaissance weekend and they were telling me all about their New Years and the different speakers. And both of them were like finishing each other's sentences.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: The best way to describe them --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Clearly in love.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: -- they're really in a perpetual state of newly-wed. I mean, they really are. Steve and I -- my husband Steve and I met Gabby and Mark because Gabby and I were both chosen for this legislative fellowship, the same one that Trey Grayson was in; we were all in the same fellowship together. And so we were a part of this couple-year fellowship and we travelled around to different places and spent a lot of time together.

And then Gabby ran for Congress -- she was a state senator, she ran for Congress. I was the head of the Red to Blue program, so we got to know -- I traveled to Tucson that cycle. Mark's last shuttle launch, our family went with Mark and Gabby's family to see the launch. We were able to be there the night before with the family when the shuttle is all lit up at night. And we've had them in New Hampshire for the last couple summers.

And then as far as social time -- we don't get a lot of social time -- but like I said, we gravitate to each other so Gabby is one of the girlfriends that I spend time with after -- I mean, we really miss Kirsten because she's on the other side of the --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: -- I had planned and we had lunch, a ladies lunch at the Senate dining room.


SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Gabby, Debbie, and Stephanie -- it was the four of us.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Yes, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Kirsten, Gabby and I all had lunch --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: I just wanted them, I missed them so much -- I was like, you have to come have lunch with me.


Q Moving back to the hospital room just a little bit, once the eyes were open, was she smiling? Can you describe her --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: No, she has a tube in her mouth. No, she can't move her face.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: No expression. No expression. She just --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: She couldn't because of the equipment. Even if she tried -- I mean, she kept pursing her lips and I felt like she was trying to talk, but she has the breathing apparatus in her mouth so she can't really --

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: But you could see -- you could clearly see the determination in her face that she was struggling to get her eyes open because she was responding to our voices. It was like she wanted us to know that she knew we were -- that we were there. It was --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: It was raw courage. It was raw strength. It was so beautiful and so moving. And, I mean, as I said, we were in tears. We couldn't believe our eyes how courageous she was and how much she wanted to talk to us, that she wanted to -- she wanted us to know that she was with us a hundred percent and understood everything we were saying and appreciated it.

Q Can you talk a little bit about what you were told kind of going into the hospital, what you were expecting?

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: They didn't really tell us a whole lot. They didn't warn us about anything. I mean, I had spoken to Mark on the phone and he kind of gave me an idea a couple days ago of what she looked like -- I mean, where there was a big scar and what bandages there were and things like that. So I wasn't so -- actually she looked --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: She looked beautiful.


SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Absolutely beautiful.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: And she looked not anything like you would imagine someone with a gunshot wound to the head would look. She looked angelic, I have to tell you. It was stunning. I mean, she -- the strength that she has is -- we were already aware of, but it clearly -- I mean, it just resonates all the way through her.

Q Describe the room a little bit for us.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Well, if you ever have a chance to talk to her mother, you can understand where Gabby gets it from, because her mother was just sparkling with pride and her own level of determination and will.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I mean, we're bordering on violating her privacy now by describing -- I don't want to get into what she looked like or, you know, the --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: Between her mother and Mark, there's no doubt -- both Debbie and I know Gabby has the courage and strength it will take to recover from this. We know her spirit is indomitable. We know she's got the kind of conviction that it would take someone to recover from this kind of incident. But when I finally met her mother, I knew where it came from because her mother says, of course she's getting better, of course she's going to be walking soon.

And when I talked to Mark two days ago -- both Debbie and I have been sharing this story -- he said, Gabby is going to be walking. I told the doctor that Gabby would be walking on two weeks.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: A couple, two weeks. He said the same thing to both of us.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: And so when Mark told to both Debbie and I the story, we said --

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Separately, and we didn't even know that we both had talked to him.

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: So you can understand the world she's in. There's the people who are around who believe in her, who know of her strength, and we just feel so lucky that we could have been a small part of this -- of the hope that I think the whole nation has for her future.

REPRESENTATIVE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: She's totally enveloped by the love of her family, of her friends, of her constituents, and now the whole nation. And I think it's absolutely clear that all that energy has been felt by her.

Q Thank you. We really appreciate it.

Q What was the name of the pizza place where you were joking about going back to?




Q The Matchbox on the Hill or --

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: On H Street. (Laughter.) They have really good pizza.

Q What's her favorite pizza?

SENATOR GILLIBRAND: I don't know, but then -- the funny thing about the dinner was we were supposed to go to a more conservative, fancy restaurant and when I saw it on the schedule, I said, no, I'm not in the mood. So I called Gabby and I say, where do you want to go? And I talked to her scheduler and I gave her four options of restaurants I knew were good. They picked Matchbox and they had been there the night before, so they really like it. (Laughter.) And they had had pizza the night before so -- it's Mark's favorite. It's his favorite restaurant.

Q Thank you both very much.

MR. GIBBS: The President first heard the story on the drive from University Medical Center over to the McKale Center from her husband. And what I understand happened -- and I talked with Senator Gillibrand and Congressman Wasserman Schultz -- Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz -- who were in the room with Nancy Pelosi. And they -- Senator Gillibrand had -- was holding her hand, and these are all personal friends of hers. So they're talking about these personal experiences that they've had together as friends and with family and things like that. And during this process she began to -- she began to rub the hand of the senator.

And so it's obvious she's -- it's obvious that she's hearing them. And at some point, she begins to try to open her eye. And this obviously hasn't happened before, and as this is happening, many in the room are obviously getting quite excited. And she opens her eye, and she's --

Q Eye singular or eyes plural?

MR. GIBBS: Eye, eye. I believe one eye is bandaged. And so she opens her eye and she's trying to focus. And her husband says, if you can hear me, if you can -- you know, if you can respond, give me a thumbs up. And that's when she raised her whole arm.

So -- and that's a little bit of the back story on -- and again, the President heard this on the ride over, and her husband was okay with him telling that to the crowd. I think that was a pretty powerful moment.

Q Who conveyed it to the President?

MR. GIBBS: Her husband ... He was riding -- excuse me, he was riding with the President in the limo, and with her mom over -- with the First Lady -- over to the memorial service.

Q Could you tell us a little bit more about what happened when the President was in the room with her? Did he hold her hand?

MR. GIBBS: I don't have anything on that. Let me see if I can try to get that. I think there was -- obviously I think -- he spent some time obviously with her husband, and I think there was some of that. But I don't -- I have no reason to believe that when they left she had been responsive.

Q Do you know about how much time passed between when the President was in the room and then when the --

MR. GIBBS: No, it would have been a fairly quick thing, because we were moving around pretty quickly. And I know that that group had gone to see a couple of her staff members who were there and who some of them know personally. So it was fairly quickly, I think.

Q So just to be clear, because it's hard to hear, the President was not in the room at the time? This was separate with Senator Gillibrand, Wasserman Schultz and Nancy Pelosi in the room?


Q How long after the President's visiting?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know the exact timing. But I don't think it was -- I don't think it was a long gap of time.

Q This was when the President was still at the hospital? This was when the President was still at the hospital visiting other people?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, we had not left the hospital yet because her husband went with us in the motorcade. So it was probably -- I mean, at most it was -- it couldn't have been more than half an hour ... And I think it was much earlier than that.

Q Did Senator Gillibrand and Nancy Pelosi and Wasserman Schultz, did they come with you to the arena for the speech, or did they stay there with Congresswoman --

MR. GIBBS: They left not long after what I just told you. And again, that's gleaned not, obviously, from being in the room but from talking to Senator Gillibrand and Senator -- I'm sorry, Congressman -- woman Wasserman Schultz.

Q Can you just talk briefly about how sort of the whole day was for the President? I mean, he seemed rather emotional and pretty touched by his meetings with everyone.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I mean, look, I think if you read -- look, obviously this was -- look, I think this obviously has been on everybody's mind since we first heard about it on Saturday. And I guess I'd point you to some of what he said in the Oval Office with Sarkozy, because I think in many ways -- I think he's gone through thinking about this as the President, I think he's gone through thinking about this as somebody who knew the congresswoman, and I think he's gone through this, as I'm sure many of you guys have, as a parent might or a sibling might -- if you read some of the stories that -- about the victims that are still very, very hard to read. And I think he's been thinking about this on a lot of different levels.

He had his first conversations with Cody Keenan, who was the writer on this, on -- would have been probably late on Monday. And what they usually do is the President will -- they'll bring a laptop in and the President will download a little bit on what he'd like to say.

The President sent Cody -- excuse me, my voice is still bad -- sent edits back to Cody, which would have been this morning about 1:00 a.m. So he's been working on -- he'd been working on the speech most of the day. They made edits even after we landed in Arizona.

So I think he was -- again, and I think he -- having watched him do this a lot, but it was clear that this was something he'd focused on and thought about, as I think all of us have, in different aspects of our lives and how much he wanted to largely discuss I think the characteristic of empathy and thinking about how we can -- how our lives can be better and the examples of what some of those that lost their lives in this accident can teach us.

Q Did he feel good about the speech?

MR. GIBBS: He did.

Q There were some raised eyebrows about John Boehner attending a fundraiser in D.C. this evening and declining the President's invitation to come to the memorial service aboard Air Force One. Any thoughts on that?

MR. GIBBS: I don't think that's appropriate for me to get into tonight.

Q What's the First Lady doing? She seemed to be especially moved by the speech tonight.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I think she -- I mean, I was standing with some of her staff, and obviously -- again, I think that -- I think when you hear some of the stories, particularly the really moving story of the nine-year-old girl, again, I think you think about this stuff as a mom. I know that when I first heard about the nine-year-old, I immediately started to think about my seven-year-old. And again, I'm sure a lot of people throughout the country have, in the sense of the randomness, the unspeakable senseless nature of something like that to happen to somebody so young and innocent and full of life. And I think that's what -- I think that's -- I think of these events, it's the hardest thing to explain, to wrap your mind around, to come to an explanation of why.

And as the President said, there aren't any answers to that. And we may never know. But I think that impacted her. And, look, I think it was a powerful event where there was a celebration of life, there was a celebration of -- and I think that's all part of -- it's all part of a natural grieving process.

Thanks guys.

By Debbi Wilgoren  | January 13, 2011; 9:47 AM ET
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