Sitting in the Bethesda family living room of two friends from college, I chatted with a priest who was talking about the goings on at his parish. He mentioned a funeral for someone at the New York Times. My eyebrows perked up — I hadn’t heard anything about anyone passing away in that newsroom. “Robin Toner,” he said.
Robin, a tough veteran political reporter, had always been kind to me, one of the lowest rungs on the totem pole in the DC bureau. When it came time for me to leave (the columnist was leaving the page, thus relieving me of my usefulness), Robin came to me looking concerned about what I might do. “If you need anything, tell me.” When I came back to visit, she asked me how things were. Not in that small talk way. In that way that belies a sentiment so often shielded by the whole “tough reporter” shtick.
Her passing was a surprise to me, especially learning of it that way. But life is full of surprises — some bad, some good. On the good side falls the surprise of opening Mike Allen’s morning round-up email, to find DC bureau chief Dean Baquet’s remarks from last night, eulogizing Robin:
At the 65th annual Congressional Dinner of the Washington Press Club Foundation, a slide saying “In Memory of Robin Toner” shone from the Ritz-Carlton screens as New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet spoke: “One thing about Robin: She was stubborn, and she knew when she was right and her editors were wrong, which was MOST of the time. There were many Friday nights, when she was covering the 2000 midterms, when she’d be working on Sunday stories – in particular, one story the Sunday before the elections – in which her editors (not me, by the way) were trying to predict the outcome of that Tuesday’s vote. Every hour, a new set of instructions on what the story should say came from New York, believe it or not. [Murmurs.] And she would pull her hair and say: ‘These guys don’t know what they’re talking about. This is so a) conventional wisdom, or b) horserace, or c) just plain wrong.’ But she hung on right through the end, till late Friday night. And the next day, she’d be the first to admit if the story got better for some of the meddling. But it hurt her to say it. And I have to admit it didn’t happen all that often. I miss Robin in deeply personal ways. But what I miss most of all is what Robin would have done with the story we’re covering now. I miss what she’d say about Obama and Daschle. I miss her telling me to cover the issues. And I miss her telling me to remember the history before writing the story. I miss her tremendously, as does the whole Bureau. Thank you so much.”
That hair pulling moment was so typical for a woman whose exasperation only reflected her inspiration. RIP.