Thinking about Robin Toner

The late New York Times political writer stood watch over all our liberties.


By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

Some years ago, Robin Toner and I found ourselves in New Orleans—or was it Houston?—covering the deliberations of the platform committee at a Republican national convention.

We shared an Irish-American's love of politics, and a Celtic sense of humor. And during a brief break in the proceedings we entertained each other with snatches of political gossip and some flippant commentary about what, and who, we were watching.

The chairman brought the gavel down, and the committee took up its work again. But I was not finished with my smart aleck remarks, and continued to murmur—until Robin gave me a look that, as my grandmother used to say, would curdle milk.

Robin was a professional—a class act at a classy bureau in a town not known for that particular attribute. And she wasn't about to let the Republicans slip something past her that her readers should know, or that her editors might read in the pages of their competition.

She knew, most of all, that the words and actions of politicians matter, and that it was her job to take them seriously and critically, and report them fairly and accurately. And this she did with unfailing integrity.

Somewhere, some folks' lives would be different because of what the pols were doing that day. And Robin would not let it be said that their actions went unreported. Not on her watch.

So, "Shut up, Jack, I'm working," she let me know, "and you might want to put that pen and notebook to good use yourself."

Yes ma'am. She'd tolerate many of my flaws. Not carelessness. No, never, not caring.

Robin once wrote, in tribute to a colleague and friend who died too young, that "he believed that behind every arcane tax provision or line in an appropriations bill, there were real people, getting something, or getting something taken away. He believed that there was, on most stories, something approximating truth out there if you were smart enough and hungry enough to find it."

That was Robin. As Todd Purdum noted in a loving obit in the pages of the great newspaper she was so proud to represent, she may as well have been describing herself. She had what Mary McGrory said of Tip O'Neill: the rare gift of seeing the particular in the general.

I won't go on about the price Robin paid to be the first (and only) of her gender to serve as the national political writer for The New York Times. You either know the price, or won't appreciate it if I tell you.

But her story would be incomplete if I didn't note that, having reached that professional pinnacle, Robin found the strength of spirit to give it up.

How many of us, having clinched a precious title, a promotion, an envied niche, a fine salary—have the wisdom and self-confidence to say, "Nope. Not enough. Life's too short. I want something else. Something richer. Something fuller. Something more."

Rob did. And she found it, for a time. That something more was Peter, her husband, and the 11-year-old twins—Nora and Jacob —whom she so loved.

And then my friend Robin died of cancer on Friday. Life, as she suspected, was too short. We who knew her will miss her, and try to help each other through these sad days of winter.

And those of you who never knew her—but who depend upon such fierce, dedicated, souls to stand watch over our liberties and look out for the people—will miss her as well.

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