Remembering Robert Pear

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If you were involved in health care policy and politics in Washington over the last four decades, nothing straightened the spine like a call from Robert Pear of The New York Times. He was simply the smartest, best-sourced, best-prepared, best-documented health care reporter in the country. Day-in-day-out, week-in-week-out, year-to-year he was the most influential reporter writing about health care in the country. So whether he called and left a message—and for the 26 years I knew him it was always the same, “Hello Bill, its Robert Pear from The New York Times. Please call when you get a chance,” delivered in that distinct whisper—or he caught you live, you had to bring your very best to the call. 

The first question that raced through your mind with Robert was: What do I know that he wants to know? And even in casual conversations with Robert, you had to be alert, because he had a great whit and you simply could not be lazy in thought.

I was better at my job because of him.

I enjoyed every interaction—though I did not always enjoy all of his stories because Robert was the master of the old aphorism, “the job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and I worked for the comfortable: a member of Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services, a major health care trade association, and others. But I always was pro-Robert when he called and wanted to talk with me or someone else where I worked. I knew if he was writing something there was a good chance it would end up on the front page of The New York Times. And while Robert was very tough, he was fair – an interview with Robert meant we had a chance to tell our part of the story.

I got into the health care business in 1993, when I became the Press Secretary for Congressman Bill Thomas, who had just become the ranking member for the Health Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee. Thomas was one of the Republican leaders in the emerging Clinton health care debate. Robert was one of the first reporters to call me in my new role. It was a conversation that lasted 26 years.

But the things I recall most about Robert are not his stories, his professionalism, or the exacting standards in which he practiced his craft; what I recall most fondly is his humanity.

Sometime in the late ’90s I lived in Bethesda, MD. and swam most mornings at the Sport and Health club. One morning, as I was doing my laps, someone a couple lanes over looked familiar but I wear glasses and had goggles on so I was not sure who it was. Later, as I was getting dressed in the locker room, I put my glasses on and standing a few feet away was Robert. He looked at me and said in that all too familiar voice, “Hello Bill, you’re quite a good swimmer.” I had been a competitive swimmer and had my fair share of success. Then in pure Robert fashion he asked, “How many flip turns do you think you’ve done in your lifetime?” And because it was Robert, I had to do quick calculations in my head to come up with a number. We then had a conversation about flip turns and how best to be efficient in doing them. I even offered to give him a lesson or two, if he ever wanted.

Another story that I will always remember was the time my wife had a 45-minute conversation with Robert at a gathering of health care journalists. At the time, I was the spokesperson for HHS and Secretary Tommy Thompson, which meant I was the recipient of many late-night phone calls with Robert. This was before the era of cell phones being an extension of ourselves, so the calls came through our house phone, which meant my wife often answered, which also meant she became familiar with his voice and would from time to time engage him in conversation before handing over the phone. But she had never met him. So, when we went to this party, I introduced her to him, so she would be able to put face to voice and name. Well, before I knew it, she angled me aside and proceeded to have a 45-minute conversation with Robert that he seemed to enjoy. At some point I wandered away to chat with others and we all looked over at them chatting away, wondering what they were talking about because my wife is not a health care person. Later, I asked her about the conversation and she said they talked about their shared love of history (Robert was a big Revolutionary War history buff) and other similar topics, though she did call him on the carpet when he responded to her question about where he went to college and he said a small school in Cambridge, MA. But she also asked me why so many people in government were afraid of him, because, as she said, “he’s so nice.” After that, Robert would occasionally ask how my wife was doing and they would say hello when they saw one another.

Because Robert was so influential at one of the country’s most influential papers, people always gave him a great deal of respect, but at the same time wondered how he did it. How did he have so many sources and where did he get his documents? The answers to those are simple. He consistently worked harder than everyone else over a long period of time, focused on his craft every day, and was born with a skill that allowed him to write about complex ideas simply. But there was one other mystery that was unique to him, that perplexed many, and was a tool that he wielded over others that he may not even have known about: his notebooks and multicolored pens. It never occurred to me to think about them as I thought they were how he kept track of who he was interviewing if there were multiple people, and I knew he kept these notebooks forever as he did many other documents (I have been told by his colleagues about his legendary his paper files and how he could often produce a document faster than Google). I figured it was so he could go back years later and pull up accurate information—many of us have been at the other end of this reality (“In 1997, you said. . . .”). But during one of my jobs, the executives were fascinated about these notebooks and pens and gave much discussion to what they meant and how to deal with it. And this was yet another way Robert was good at this craft because exactly what he was up to is still a mystery.

The institutional knowledge that left us when Robert passed from this world is irreplaceable. However, while his legacy, ethic, and dedication to the craft of journalism are important, what was most impressive and must not be forgotten, was that he did all this while being one of the kindest people to work in Washington. Everyone who works in this world should take a little part of that legacy and make it part of their own.

Godspeed Robert Pear. You will be missed.

William Pierce has been working in health care for 26 years in Washington for members of Congress, trade associations, the Department of Health and Human Services and for 15 years as a senior director at APCO Worldwide. Throughout that time he knew and worked with Robert Pear.

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