By Sara Rosenbaum J.D.
With Robert Pear’s death, the health policy community lost one of its most admired voices – a reporter of unparalleled skill in covering the stories and developments that are nearly impossible to write about in a clear and accessible way and yet these urgent issues concern all Americans.
From the time Robert arrived at the New York Times until his death, his stories were a must-read for all of us who have made health policy a career.
I consider myself uncommonly fortunate because of how well I came to know Robert over the nearly four decades that have elapsed since our professional pathways first crossed.
I was a young lawyer who had transitioned from legal services into national law and policy work at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. Robert was (as I would discover) a young reporter (we were about the same age) who had come to work at the Times.
My first experience involved efforts by the Reagan Administration to reduce spending on health programs for low-income women and children at the time that an internal report was circulating among federal health officials noting a significant rise in infant mortality and raising concerns about what the potential loss of benefits would do. Robert elevated the threat into a front-page, top-of-the-fold story in the Sunday edition (from where I sat it got no more powerful than this) complete with denials and stated intentions of policy reversal.
At a time when the impact of individual news stories tended to reverberate over longer periods, this story traveled with real legs and became one of the defining pieces of writing cited by Congressional negotiators in the landmark 1984 decision to take the first steps toward what ultimately would be the major Medicaid expansion for pregnant women and children. It was a life lesson for me in what happens when fine reporting elevates a policy problem to one of national concern. It was also, needless to say, a master class in excellence in reporting.
Knowing Robert Pear was not simple. He was a quiet and very private man, but as our working relationship deepened, so did its personal side. In his gentle and totally workmanlike and unthreatening way, he made clear that he knew how to get hold of me when he needed me.
In the ancient past, before cellphones, my family all became familiar with his distinctive whispery voice – my husband; my daughter (from the time she was a bitty girl); my parents in Connecticut when I would go to visit. He was unfailingly polite, always appreciative of the time, always careful to ask if this was a good time and then, he would get right down to business.
Calls tended to fall into several camps.
There were the urgent calls when he was deep into writing and needed additional input on how to frame an especially complicated issue. Robert was not a lawyer but my colleagues agree with me, I am sure when I say that he knew more law – including more about the rarified laws that come into play in constitutional practice – than most lawyers.
He knew health care code, although being the meticulous person he is, every fact went doubly checked. Questions about phraseology were my favorites since one could find oneself on the phone for a good long while helping him think through how to state a particular fact or issue.
Then there were the more relaxed calls. He would be heading off on a trip to work on a developing story, and he would call those of us working on a particular issue to gather information on where to go, whom to see, what questions might be especially important to ask.
This kind of preparation work went into his marvelous reporting about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, his visits to community health centers across the country as part of his information gathering efforts, and his discussions with state officials. These more relaxed calls were not only about fieldwork; they also guided his reporting on national stories reported from Washington.
Having worked with scores of reporters over my career, I can say that I have never had the opportunity to engage with a reporter in this early developmental phase, so critical to the final product. Again, a master class in reporting.
Eventually, we came to know one another well enough so that our relationship took on the qualities of true friendship. Robert was especially considerate of my family – my parents and my daughter in particular. He took quiet but clear delight in my daughter’s development into a leading American theater director who regularly shows up in Times theater reporting.
When Rachel was recently profiled in one especially wonderful piece, into my office walked Robert (as it turned out, tragically, within days of his death) with 10 copies of the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday Times in which the story appeared, so that if I wanted extra copies I would have them (no electronic versions of special articles for him!). He was just so unique in this way – too shy, we think, to actually attend one of her plays but so proud of her accomplishments.
I even got small glimpses of his obviously rare vacations (as the Times obituary points out). I would receive postcards from various points, all in whispery handwriting and all with a whispery signature. We became close enough so that I got real glimpses into how he felt about life more generally, always shared in circumspect ways and always with the utmost regard and respect.
I know from the moment that we read the electrifying news of his death – especially sad for those of us at George Washington once we realized that he was brought, dying, to our hospital – that the health policy community would regard his death as an uncommonly significant loss.
I would have been one of the countless people trying to embrace him one last time, in my case for his contributions to the field and for the friendship he offered in life.