Commentary: America should try to do better. It owes Alice Rivlin that much

(Matt Rourke | The AP) Task force advisory board member Alice M. Rivlin speaks during a meeting of the State Budget Crisis Task Force at the National Constitution Center, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, in Philadelphia. The event is designed to bring attention to the eroding financial condition of state governments.

For a younger generation of women, Alice M. Rivlin was an inspiration. Economics is a man’s field - less so now than in the past - but she showed that a woman could climb to the top of the profession at some of the most prestigious economic institutions: the Congressional Budget Office, the Federal Reserve, the Office of Management and Budget and others.

For me, she was more than just an inspiration; she was a close friend and colleague.

On Tuesday, we lost Alice to cancer at the age of 88. I am still having difficulty believing she is really gone. If you knew her, the one thing you could be absolutely sure of is that she would never give up. I confidently expected her to beat her ultimate trial.

Even in her final days, she was worrying about, and writing notes about, a book she was writing. I have read a number of the draft chapters, and they are terrific. So even though we have lost Alice, we haven't lost her ideas. The book, a memoir of her life dealing with economic challenges, and her thoughts on the need to repair our politics, will be a fine and fitting legacy once it's published.

On a more personal level, I have tramped across countless landscapes and countries with Alice as part of a small group that we call "the trekkers." The group has encountered numerous challenges - from lost mules to knee injuries and dangerous water crossings. On a hike, Alice was as indefatigable and cheerful in her efforts to get to the end of the trail as she was in finishing her book or completing any other task. It was all about persistence and recognizing that "things could be so much worse." Her sense of optimism was contagious. We might be wet, cold and nursing blisters on our feet, but we would go on and find happiness even in difficult circumstances.

Throughout her career, Alice maintained an interest in younger scholars and a humility about her accomplishments not typically found among those who have achieved so much. One day, while serving as the first head of the CBO, she was sitting in her outer office when a young man who was applying for a job handed her a résumé, on the assumption that she was the director’s secretary - explaining to her that he knew the director would be interested in his application. She was too kind to explain to him that she was the director.

Among her colleagues, Alice is perhaps best known for her clear thinking and even clearer writing. After you read something she has written, you say to yourself, "Oh, I see, that makes perfect sense; why didn't I think to say it that way?" When we worked on a book together, I always knew Alice would set a high standard. Not only that, she was a workaholic and always did more than her part.

In recent years, Alice harped on the need to find compromises in areas such as the budget and health care. She has never given in to pessimism on this score, even when many others have lost faith in the ability of our political institutions to solve big problems. I may have lost a friend; but the country has lost a person who still had confidence in America's ability to transcend our differences.

If we want to honor her memory, we should try to do better.

Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Isabel Sawhill