2014 Biden Transcript
2014 Toner Prize Celebration with Vice President Joe Biden
March 24, 2014
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Everyone. Hello, everyone. As a professor I’m accustomed to getting crowds to be quiet for a few minutes. So if you would please help us welcome Drew Altman, who is the president and CEO of Kaiser Family Foundation and who’s given us this beautiful venue. (Applause)
DREW ALTMAN: Thank you, Charlotte. My name is spelled A-L-T-M-A-N but it’s actually pronounced Biden. I know you thought the Vice President was here – no, he’s here and we’ll have him out here in just a minute. Friends, so many friends that are here and colleagues and especially to Jake and Nora and to Peter. Welcome to the Barbara Jordan Conference Center. (Applause)
As you know, we’re based in California, where they do crazy things like surf and implement the Affordable Care Act. But this is our home in Washington, D.C. And with Vice President Biden here to honor Robin and the Toner Prize tonight, and most of all your continued commitment to Robin’s legacy tonight, what a wonderful, wonderful evening. I know Barbara Jordan is smiling and Robin is smiling and even though when I was in government and a major newspaper called me a “nice guy trapped in a deadly serious face,” even I’m smiling tonight. You’re in the Barbara Jordan Conference Center tonight. Barbara Jordan was a close friend of a small group of trustees who helped me establish my organization in the ‘90s and when Barbara retired from our board, I asked her what she wanted as a gift. You know, a traditional retirement gift like a watch or a chair. She wanted an American flag installed on a 40-foot flag pole behind her house in Texas so she could wheel out every day, every morning in her wheelchair and raise the American flag. And that’s what she got. And that’s what she did. She also wanted the flag of Texas, but since I’m from Boston, I drew the line. Barbara was one of a kind and she set the standard at Kaiser and for so many of us in the country. And Robin also set the standard. She was also one of a kind, and her reporting was a beacon of light just like Robin – just like Barbara was. I used to so look forward to every one of her stories. Except with a little trepidation when I was quoted in them.
The Toner Prize, which we are here to celebrate, recognizes Robin’s contributions as perhaps the foremost political reporter of her era. I thought that she was. But Robin was also the best health policy and politics reporter I ever worked with, bringing her special ability to weave politics and policy and history and wisdom and the facts – yes, there are facts are in health policy—into complex and hot health policy stories. After we lost Robin, we established the Toner Distinguished Fellowship in Health Policy Journalism at our Kaiser Health News to help carry on her legacy. After we lost Robin, great journalists took up the torch of excellence in health policy journalism. But nobody did it quite like Julie Rovner did at National Public Radio. (Applause) Julie’s work and her insistence on reporting what’s important and not just what the political process serves up everyday and her stubborn refusal to let false balance get in the way of facts – it’s helped to make health policy at least semi-sane or not totally insane and has certainly helped to inform the American people. And so we have named Julie Rover our Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow at Kaiser Health News. (Applause) Where she will start in just a few weeks on the fifth floor of this building. And it’s a great floor because it has the most free food in this building. So Julie will you stand? And will you all join me in recognizing Julie Rovner, our Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow.
I think Jake and Nora know how much we cared about their mom and care about their mom at the Kaiser Family Foundation. To see the Vice President here and this community of people so committed to honoring Robin’s legacy is very special and Peter should be very, very proud. He has worked so hard to make this happen. So we’re looking forward to a wonderful, wonderful evening tonight. And now, and next, we’re looking forward to Lorraine Branham, the dean of the Newhouse School of Public Communications. Thank you very much. (Applause)
DEAN LORRAINE BRANHAM: Thank you Drew, I appreciate it. Well, good evening, and on behalf of the Newhouse School, welcome. So great to have you all here tonight. It’s our pleasure to come down from Syracuse to come to Washington where it’s just a little bit warmer. Although I hear you’re getting snow tomorrow. We came down here to get away from snow so this is a great disappointment. But it is nice to be in the nation’s capital and especially here tonight to present the Toner Prize, which honors the life and work of the late Robin Toner, a graduate of the Newhouse School and a former national reporter for The New York Times. You’ll hear a lot about Robin tonight and the recipient of the prize as well. My job is simply to introduce our Chancellor who will go on to introduce our keynote speaker. But before I do, I just want to mention that today is National Orange Day, and for those Syracuse alums out there, you understand the importance of that. We’re celebrating the university’s 144th anniversary on campus and around the nation. This would probably be a great day for those of us who bleed orange, except for the fact that we’re still in mourning over that devastating loss on Saturday. I’m hoping we’ll have a different outcome today with the women’s basketball team, which is playing as we speak. Well, enough about basketball, my bracket is busted. I want to root for Florida and Virginia, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. So, I’m done with March Madness. Let me introduce to you our university’s new Chancellor and President Kent D. Syverud. And Chancellor Syverud was appointed by the university’s Board of Trustees in September. He assumed the leadership post in January and he is the 12th leader of the university since its founding in 1870. Chancellor Syverud came to Syracuse from Washington St. Louis where he served since 2006 as Dean of the Law School and the Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor. Prior to that, he served eight years as dean at Vanderbilt Law School. During his tenure at Washington University, he led efforts to create university-wide programs in Washington, D.C., and in New York. He also led efforts to expand online education opportunities, including the development of an innovative, online master’s degree program. Chancellor Syverud has served since 2010 as one of two independent trustees of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust, a $20 billion fund created by BP in negotiations with the White House to pay claims arising from the BP oil spill. He’s a native of Upstate New York, so he has a little experience rooting for Syracuse. He was born and raised in Irondequoit, a town on Lake Ontario, which is right near Rochester, for those of you who know Upstate New York. After attending high school there, he earned a bachelor’s degree, graduating magna cum laude from Georgetown University in 1977. He went on to get his law degree from University of Michigan in 1981 and a master’s degree in economics from Michigan in 1983. He served as law clerk for Judge Louis Oberdorfer for the U.S. District Court of the District Court for the District of Columbia and for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He practiced law in the fields of litigation and insurance at Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering in Washington, D.C. And from 1987 to 1997, he served on the faculty of the University of Michigan Law School, earning tenure in 1992 and advancing to Associate for Academic Affairs. He’s a past editor of the Journal of Legal Education and he also served as president of the American Law Deans Association. Chancellor Syverud and his wife, Dr. Ruth Chen, who we’re pleased to have us here with us tonight, are the parents of three adult sons – Steven, Brian and David. Dr. Chen is a Professor of Practice at Syracuse and she is working in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science at SU. The Chancellor has actually been pretty often on campus these past few months, meeting faculty, alumni and students on campus and around the country. He immediately endeared himself to students on campus upon arrival when he decided to spend a week in the dorms. That was a real eye-opener for him. You can follow his introduction to campus by reading his blog Bleeding Orange, which he regularly shares his thoughts with the SU community. He’s going to be officially installed as chancellor on April 11th. I think it’s fair to say that even though he’s spent a lot of time wearing Michigan blue and yellow, he looks really good in orange. Please join me in welcoming our new chancellor, Kent Syverud, who will introduce and be joined at the podium by our very special guest and keynote speaker Vice President Joe Biden. (Applause)
CHANCELLOR KENT SYVERUD: Thank you, Dean Branham, and I get mortified by long introductions. I’m going to give a shorter one to the Vice President of the United States, which seems to lack humility but actually it’s because –
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN (interrupting): This crowd knows me too well.
CHANCELLOR KENT SYVERUD: First, let me thank everyone at the Newhouse School who had a role in sponsoring the Toner Prize and for this wonderful event. A lot of staff worked hard on this I know, including the Vice President’s staff and staff in Washington. I want to thank Drew Altman of course from the Kaiser Family Foundation, who provided this venue and Peter Gosselin for all the wok on the arrangements tonight and all the work in making this work possible in memory of his wife Robin. I’m so glad that Peter’s children Jacob and Nora are participating tonight. I want to thank John Chapple, who’s an SU trustee and also a former classmate of Robin’s, who also joined with Peter in creating the endowment and helping make it happen. And of course Charlotte Grimes, who we all met coming in who’s our Chair in Political Reporting and coordinator for the Toner Prize in the Robin Toner Program.
This ceremony honors the life and work of one of Syracuse’s own, Robin. But it also recognizes excellence in journalism that everyone at Newhouse aspires to. The prize was specifically created, of course, to honor political reporting and excellence and Robin epitomized that throughout her career, as the vice president was telling me about earlier today. I think that Robin was the model of demanding excellence and honesty as a reporter. I think the prize winners that we’re honoring tonight did the same. I think their work demonstrates the importance of thoughtful journalism to this society and to democracy. I’m just so glad that tonight also honors another graduate of Syracuse University, which I’m so proud to be now leading — Vice President Joe Biden. As the vice president told me, Robin and his paths crossed often. These two high-achieving alumni are examples of taking Syracuse education and making the most of it. I do want to say a few embarrassing things that the vice president has heard many times, but he has not heard me say them. I want to say that he’s had more than four decades in public office, elected to the Senate and at the age of 29, a senator from Delaware for 36 years. A leader in so many issues, domestic and foreign. Including the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Made the 1994 Crime Bill and the Violence Against Women Act happen. He was tapped by freshman Senator Barack Obama, as we all know, to be a running mate for the presidency in 2008. Obviously to get a partner with a vast knowledge of foreign policy and security issues, but he also gained a vice president with a warm, human touch and a natural connection to middle-class Americans. I think that stands out for me in so many ways and that I’ve now been able to see in person. He’s been such a loyal friend and supporter of Syracuse University for six decades. That’s what the text told me to talk about – six decades. It makes you sound like you’re in your nineties. That can’t be possible. He’s delivered commencement addresses many times. He’s brought the White House Task Force on Middle-Class Families to our campus for a national conversation on college education affordability – something I hear a lot about lately. Most endearingly, on the eve of our epic February 1st game against Duke, he permitted himself to be photographed — with a fist-pumping picture of himself wearing a bright orange Beat Duke t-shirt. It was tweeted around the world. Thank you. (Applause) Mr. Vice President, for all of us who bleed orange as they say in the MasterCard ads, for us, that was priceless. We’re deeply honored to call him one of our own. Please join me in welcoming the 47th Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. (Applause)
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much, Chancellor. Please, please sit down. Quite frankly, I don’t know why you’re all not eating. I was a United States Senator for 30 years, I’m used to not being taken seriously. Hey look, Dr. Altman, you know it wasn’t so bad that the chancellor pointed out how long I served, but sitting here in a room that was named after another – Barbara – I knew well, realizing I served longer than she did — she was junior to me in the House – makes me feel what I don’t like feeling, very much older. But it was a great ride. And you’re right that, for real, Barbara and Robin had something in common. They had steel in their spine. They both had steel in their spine. And it was a sense – how can I say it? – it was a sense that there was a truth. And they were hell-bent to find it. And so it’s a great honor to be here. Chancellor, thank you for that introduction. And Dick Thompson, who is a Syracuse board of trustees member, and Dean – it’s great to see you. I’ve been up to campus a couple of times in the past five years and I still haven’t seen the new Newhouse building. So I have to come back. And again, Drew, thank you for hosting us tonight. I appreciate it. I want to thank Robin’s family. I was speaking with Peter and the kids and the family backstage. This is a celebratory moment but I know from experience when any occasion occurs like this it’s a bittersweet moment because you’re talking only a short number of years. It makes them proud but it’s a bittersweet moment. Robin was much too young. And Peter, without running the risk of ruining your reputation among all these journalists, thank you for the help in the administration for rescuing our economy from the brink of collapse and helping enact the healthcare reform. And by the way it is working now, guys, but that’s another issue. (Applause)
And you did this all while your personal life and your home was being turned upside down. To Nora and Jake and all of Robin’s family, I had a wonderful time meeting you all backstage and an even greater time knowing your mom, your sister, your family. You know it’s beyond the power, at least my power and capability, to talk about the life of a woman who accomplished so much in so little time. And who was loved so dearly by those she worked with and respected by those she covered. And that’s an interesting fact, if you think about it, you reporters know. Even as tough as she was, she was respected by those she covered. So Nora and Jake, I have a slight advantage, I knew your mom personally and I knew from when she came. I knew the school she went to very well, the place she grew up was in my backyard. And I also know a lot of people who are friends of your mom, who are obviously a lot younger than me, and my sister, but who still talk about her, know her and care for her in Delaware. Robin went to the premiere academic girls Catholic high school in the state. I was kidding with her sister backstage that it used to be, I went to the Catholic boys school, which was a small school in Claymont, Delaware. And they were almost like sister schools and brother schools far away. And there was a rule back into the ‘70s where you were not allowed within the Christopher Columbus statue of Ursuline before 5:00 – for real. And if you got caught and were from Archmere – the Sallies guys didn’t pay much attention to that – that’s another story. If you’re from Archmere, you’d literally get summoned by the nuns and get taken in to wash the windows. It was a sad day they closed down because there’s so few nuns now. As Wilmingtonians know, they closed down the convent. There’s a little memorial plaque – Biden did the windows, because I did so much time there.
But Robin grew up across the state line, about 10 miles from where I grew up in my home, to a working class Irish family like mine. She and her sisters went to Ursuline, that all-girl Catholic school as I said, and her brothers went to our nemesis, Salesianum. They had five times as many boys and they used to beat the living hell out of us. So I’ve never forgiven anyone who went there. All kidding aside, it was a great school. I also went to that other Catholic school and my sons and daughter did as well. We grew up with the same set of values although distance in age. I never knew Robin’s parents but I suspect we were raised to have the same intense sense of pride and self-worth. It’s my impression that Robin’s mom had absolute certitude that Robin and her siblings were every man and woman’s equal and it didn’t matter where they came from or who they were. My mom used to say Irish is about family, it’s about faith, it’s about courage and without courage you can’t love with abandon. And it was the same kind of environment we grew up in. Robin’s mother literally was a Rosie the Riveter working in a factory, while her husband, Robin’s dad was a pilot in World War II. And Robin, even though I never met her mother, was obviously her mother’s daughter. And she was committed to making a difference.
The interesting thing is, as those of you know, she excelled at everything she did. She excelled in high school, when she thought she might want to be a reporter. And at our mutual alma mater, Syracuse, where she knew she was going to be a reporter. Robin and I, so I’m told, had something else in common at Syracuse, years apart. Neither one of us were big partiers, but that similarity ended at Syracuse University. Robin preferred studying and debating politics at the common room in the dorm or Bird Library and it’s no surprise she graduated magna cum laude. I didn’t. But we both loved and cared about politics. Me as a combatant and she as a reporter. Robin covered me in my Senate days as a young senator from Delaware, down here from New York Times in the Senate. And in my first presidential run. Even then it was clear she was destined to have a great career, a career she dreamed for herself. She was fair. She did all the hard work and homework. She was insightful. And she had an incredible eye for detail that other reporters often miss and that we candidates often hope and pray you miss. But the thing I can say about the years that she covered me is she was always straightforward, fact-based and never judgmental. And there were some tough times in my career when she was covering me. That’s why I was always comfortable speaking to Robin. You probably don’t believe it, there are some very serious reporters in this room. But with talking to Robin, I always knew it wasn’t a cynical exercise for her. It wasn’t scorekeeping. She knew the outcome of the election affected real people’s lives and that’s why she held us accountable. It wasn’t just a game, a sport. It mattered. It mattered to her. I don’t know if you’ll believe this, but I’ve always and I think most people would rather be covered by a tough, smart reporter who respected the process and the seats we were occupying than one who’s cynical and didn’t respect those offices and not so smart. I really mean it. I really mean it. And I’ve been doing this job a long time. And some of you, we really learn a lot about ourselves when we are candidates who hold public office. Robin had a way, and I’m not sure if she knew it or not or if many of you know it or not, about making, in my case, more introspective and more self-critical. When she wrote about the workings of government, Robin, I believe from my perspective when I read her and was interviewed by her, thought about the people she grew up with. It mattered. This business matters. It’s not just an exercise. That old Peter Dunn adage, I think, fits her to a T. The job of newspapers is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That’s how I think, and I can’t presume to know, but that’s how I always think about her. She knew words and fact matters. Ladies and gentleman, it matters if there’s respect in the political process. It matters to people’s lives. It matters that we can have strong disagreements and compromise. It matters whether the system works. That our government functions well and that it serves everyone in the country. It matters. I think that’s what drove Robin.
The point I’d like to make tonight is both a state of both our positions – politicians and journalists. We could use a hell of a lot more people like Robin. People who are less cynical about a system that has to function in order to meet the needs of the American people and quite frankly the world. Cynicism pervades too widely in both our professions. All of you in this room, I know, know that. Robin’s ability to take complicated issues and tell stories that are accurate and that people could understand, that was one of the great traits she had. It’s a great talent. And that’s still in high demand and that’s why Peter, your colleagues and Newhouse, I think, decided it was so important to establish an award in Robin’s name. Reminding folks why solid journalism matters so much.
I’ll spare you all the Jefferson quotes, but she was tough. Not in the service of undermining the system, but in strengthening it. She was a remarkable woman. Let me close by directly thanking and talking to Jake and Nora., 16-year-old twins. It’s become obvious to those who know them—and Jake goes to my granddaughter’s school and they know him. It’s obvious to everyone who knows you that you are your mom. You are what she was. Her blood runs through your veins just as much as your dad’s does. Jake, I hear you’re a heck of a writer and a debater and an athlete. And Nora, your love of art and the written word. Everybody who knows you knows it means something to you. Just like it did to your mother at your age.Sixteen years old. Nora, Mrs. Biden and I are extremely happy that you’re coming to a reception at our home to celebrate Women’s History Month. There’s going to be a lot of strong, bright, successful women who are going to be making changes just like your mom and just like you’re going to. Making a big difference in many people’s lives. So to both the kids, let me just say I know children who lost their mom. I know there’s nothing that makes up for that. I know this a bittersweet thing, hearing all these wonderful things about your mom. But you have each other and you have your dad. That’s the place in which you’re going to draw all your strength. And she’s part of you, she’ll never leave you, she is you.
So to the past Toner Prize winners and Fellowship winners and this year’s recipients, congratulations. And thank you for attempting, whether you knew it or not, for trying to emulate those incredible traits and characteristics and integrity that Robin represented. We need you. We need you badly. May God bless you and may God protect our troops. Thank you. (Applause)
ADAM CLYMER: Good evening. I get the opportunity to speak after the vice president and before Congressman Lewis, so you won’t expect much, and you probably won’t get it. But you’ve had appetizer and your dessert, I guess I’m your vegetables. I’m Adam Clymer. I used to be with The New York Times. I was a friend of Robin’s. I worked with her in the 1980s when she was a Times stringer in West Virginia. I worked with her in various roles and she was always a great friend and a great reporter. The reason I’m here is in our judging process. I’ve been a member of the final panel each year that we’ve given out the prize. And this year we’ve never had as close a competition as we had this year. We had a lot of good entries – a couple of brilliant entries. And we had to choose. But that’s what life is about, I guess. But at any rate, I don’t remember a situation where all the judges said it was very close between the two of them and if one or the other wins, that’s OK by me. If anyone had suggested anyone outside of the two you’ll hear from tonight, they’d have been lynched by the rest of the judges. But anyway, it’s been a pleasure. And one of the things about it, even the entries that didn’t win the prize gave you a little hope that despite the decline of journalism that everyone talks about and the menace of the web and all that, there’s some darn good political reporting in places all around the country and we got to see that. But anyway, that’s enough from me. I’m here to introduce the people who will describe and present the prizes. It’s my privilege to introduce Nora and Jake Gosselin. (Applause)
NORA GOSSELIN: Good evening. I want to begin by saying what an honor this program and prize are for me and my family and for the memory of my mom. So thank you all so much for being with us tonight. I learned my first curse word during the 2004 presidential election, folded in an office chair, on some bring-your-kid to work day at The New York Times bureau. The swearing reporter, who I remember as Rick Berke, was fighting for a story for the fact that he had gathered and that he knew to be true. And so my mom just shrugged, smiled even, because her kids were getting a taste of the passion that she so loved. It was in this same bureau that I also witnessed the true power of a story for the first time. The awe of what even 500 words could accomplish. If they were about something that mattered to people’s lives. A tax cut. A policy change buried in a bill. A campaign contribution secretly, wrongly given. I watched my mom on her feet yelling into the phone in New York, fighting because she knew the responsibility that a byline gave her and she was going to do it right. My mom made sure that I saw the backside of the American news business. The colorful chaos behind the clean, black type only to burst forth the next day. And today, I like to consider myself a small part of this, as I write for my school newspaper. Twenty-five years ago, my dad investigated Jonnie R. Williams Sr. for The Boston Globe. Last week, I wrote about Williams and his recent partnership with Governor McDonnell myself and I came across my dad’s old articles. I’m so grateful, I’m so excited to be part of all this. And I’m inspired by journalists like Jennifer Davidson (Eds. Note: surname changed to Moore) from KSMU radio in the Ozarks. We honor Ms. Davidson (Moore) tonight for her exceptional coverage of the potential Medicaid expansion in Missouri. The judges agreed that she successfully broke down the issue into accessible, bite-sized chunks for her local community. So insight, compassion and what goes on in that zone between politics and policy that my mom so loved to cover. That’s why I’m thrilled to award Jennifer Davidson (Moore) the Toner Honorable Mention for her pieces “Missouri and Medicaid Expansion: What’s the Stake?” (Applause)
JENNIFER (Moore) DAVIDSON: Thank you. Thank you to the judges. And thank you to Robin’s family, of whom I have had the immense pleasure and honor of meeting so, so many of you tonight, hearing about Robin’s courage firsthand. I will say I didn’t have the honor of knowing Robin personally, but I do know that she was a trailblazer for political journalists like myself, both women and men, but particularly women. And I’m proud to be walking on that trail. This is an incredible honor, thank you.
JAKE GOSSELIN: My mom loved politics. Anyone who knew her during a presidential election knew that she, like many of the people here, loved the thrill of big-time political reporting. But even in the heat of the most intense campaign, she never lost sight of what she believed was more important. The people behind the politics. When she left for Iowa, or Ohio, or many of the battleground states every four years, she was excited to report on politicians and campaigners. But she was more excited to report on the voters, the men and women whose stories would often be overlooked. That was her passion. This year, as Adam said, the judges received some of the best pieces they’ve had since the prize began. Almost every submission was both well-written and well-reported. Today’s winner demonstrates skillful writing and deep reporting on a variety of issues. But what really made her stand out to the judges was her ability to marry politics and humanity. Of all the stories she submitted, the piece that won her the prize was a compelling expose she wrote just before the president was inaugurated for the second time. In it, she told the story of Earl Smith, a man who, like many, had become enthralled with the presidential candidate and through a chance encounter with the then-Senator, bestowed on him a military patch to quote “help keep him safe on his journey.” She brought to light an amazing American story, of a man who’s life of struggle and sacrifice embodies many of the values we hold most dear. Her decision to write about Earl Smith, to shift the focus away, just for a moment, from campaign politics, makes her a perfect representation of the kind of journalism that my mom prized above all. It is my honor to present this year’s Toner Prize to Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post for her collection of pieces on the 2012 presidential campaign. (Applause)
KAREN TUMULTY: Thank you. Thank you so much. I feel so honored and more than a little flabbergasted. But for me, receiving this prize, which is named for someone I knew and admired has also been a reminder of something and that is that the person with the byline is the one who gets the recognition. And you know in this unsettled time in our business, when we are all being told to develop our own brands or whatever it is this week. The fact is that most of the stories that made me the proudest come from the kind of journalism that you can really only do at a great news organization. And I am so happy that the story that impressed the judges was the story of a stranger who encountered then-candidate Barack Obama on an elevator and had given him a cherished keepsake. The night that we finally closed that story, I told Ann Gerhart, the editor and very gifted writer who had really pulled me over the finish line on that one, I’ve always felt that the very best kind of editors are the ones that get as excited about the story as I do. And I can get pretty obsessive about stories, as my long-suffering husband, Paul Richter, will tell you. And I’m really lucky that The Washington Post where I’ve been for four years has that kind of editor in abundance. I’m so glad that some of them are here tonight. Steven Ginsberg and Terry Samuel and of course the big guys Marty and Kevin. But there’s also someone here without who this full story would never have come to light. And that is Alice Crites. Alice is an extraordinary researcher who can dig out whatever information you ask for and sometimes information that you do not know is there. So after Earl told me the story of his military service, I asked Alice to do what you ask to do – just check the records, make sure he really was in the military. That he really was in Vietnam when he said he was. And less than a day later, Alice came to me with some startling news. And that was that she had discovered that somebody with Earl’s exact name and exact birthdate had spent three years in a Georgia prison. But for some reason hadn’t served his full sentence, nor was there any record of a parole. So it turned out that Earl had a secret. And one that, once we got to the bottom of it, really made his story all that more extraordinary. And, really, all that more of an example of courage and resilience and faith.
Of course, what makes this award truly special is that it’s named for Robin, who was a friend of mine and someone whose work we revered. We met aboard a campaign bus. Of course, we met aboard a campaign bus. It was 1987, shortly after both of us had arrived in Washington and we were covering Gary Hart on a swing through the South. At the time, he was a pretty solid frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. And I remember Robin wrote a really elegant piece that I admired and envied on how he was struggling to connect with African Americans. As it turns out, that was a lesson for both of us on how quickly things can change in politics. Her story ran on April 27th and exactly five days later, The Miami Herald ran a story with the headline “Miami Woman is Linked to Hart.” And, well, let’s just say connecting with black voters was no longer his biggest challenge.
Many of my favorite campaign memories are ones with Robin on the road. Her sense of humor never failed and that was really tested the time that the John Kerry bus pulled up in front of hotel in Dubuque where the campaign was putting us up for the night. It was a meth hotel. Any doubts that it was a meth hotel vanished when we checked in and realized the front desk was behind bullet-proof glass. And Robin had noticed there were some huge Dumpsters in the parking lot. “You see that?” she said. “That is where they’re gonna find our body parts in the morning.”
The fact is just being around Robin can make you a better journalist. And in 2007 she called me up and proposed that we travel to Iowa together to hear Barack Obama unveil his healthcare plan. Robin knew that this was going to be a moment where we could judge whether there was any substance to this guy’s high-flying rhetoric. I remember after his speech in Iowa City we were on our way to Cedar Rapids. It was in this souped-up Mustang that Avis gave us and we looked like a really nerdy version of Thelma and Louise. And Robin was driving and I was answering both of our phone calls and of course the inevitable calls from the other campaigns started coming in. So I handed her her phone – and Nora and Jake don’t ever do this – but I listened to her conduct an interview while she was driving 70 miles an hour. And I heard her tell one caller “Look, this is all very interesting, but if you’re not willing to let me use your name, I really don’t see any point in continuing this conversation.” I might add that the person she was talking to now works at the Obama White House in one of those positions you constantly see described as a Senior Administration Official. But the point is that Robin Toner never, ever took a cheap shot. And she never let the column inches of The New York Times take a cheap shot either. She believed that politics and policy were not two different things. She believed it was the job of the journalist to explain why they were the same thing. So that anyone believes that my work could measure up to the standards and the legacy that Robin Toner set, is both an honor and more importantly, a challenge. So thank you very much. (APPLAUSE)
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Now that we’re coming to dessert, we actually have a very special dessert in one sense. We have another special guest, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. Now, Robin Toner covered his early steps toward an elected office when she reported for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And as you surely know, John Lewis is always, and always has been, a force to be reckoned with in politics and in civil rights. I have to get a little weepy here because when I was growing up in South Alabama, I saw the marches he led and I saw the incredibly brave reporters who followed those marches and told those stories. And John Lewis and one of those journalists are one of the reasons I wanted to go into journalism. He also has deep and warm connections to Syracuse University, Robin’s alma mater. In 2004, I was especially privileged to have Congressman Lewis come to Syracuse University for a symposium on civil rights and the press – a subject he knows quite a lot about. And in 2010, he began working with Syracuse University as a mainstay in a very special project for the Cold Case Initiative at SU’s College of Law, where Vice President Biden graduated. Needless to say, he is still a force to be reckoned with and it’s my very special pleasure to say: Congressman Lewis, will you come please and inspire us once again? Thank you.
JOHN LEWIS: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for those kind words of introduction. I really must tell you I feel more than lucky, but very blessed to be here. Peter, I love your wife. Nora and Jacob, I love your mother. She was the best. I first met her in Atlanta and I had a little more of my hair and a few pounds lighter. I want to thank Syracuse University and the Kaiser Family Foundation for inviting me to say a few words about my dear friend Robin Toner. I think it is so fitting and so appropriate that you would develop an award for excellence in political reporting to remember and honor Robin Toner. She was the very best of the best in her field and that’s why she became the first woman The New York Times ever hired as its national political correspondent. In my years in politics, I’ve gotten to know many good, great and even legendary reporters. Not just from the South, but from all over America. There as not one that was as consistent, as persistent or as thorough as Robin Toner. I know some of you are going to get on me for saying that, but it’s okay – I believe in the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. I came to know her when she was working for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She saw me win, she saw me lose. She would come back and interview me once and then she would come back and interview me again. She would ask follow-up questions and dig and dig until she understood the core of what was being communicated. She didn’t harass, or badger. But she was passionate in her quest to comprehend the fight and get the story right. That beautiful smile, you couldn’t say no. You just couldn’t say no to Robin Toner. (Applause) And if she thought a person wouldn’t be an accurate or open, she would say so. She would say “Oh, well, another source told me something different.”
She educated herself on the issues so she was never easily fooled or misled in her reporting. I loved to read her story or her byline in The New York Times and the AJC. Her writing was eloquent but her story was so informative. She never gave up. She never gave in. She kept her faith and she kept her eyes on the prize. I remember when I first came to Capitol Hill we used to meet at a little restaurant. And some of you who work at Capitol Hill, it’s on the corner of 3rd and Pennsylvania Southeast. It was a little hole in the wall. Some of you remember that? It had pies and cakes and you could go in there early in the morning and get coffee or tea. Well, we would go have breakfast or just to get some juice. We would talk about politics, taxes, welfare, Social Security, civil rights, whatever was on her mind. I remember once she told me her father said “Robin, you must love that guy, John Lewis, because you quote him all the time in some of your stories.”
I think we shared a love of newspapers. I told her on one occasion, when I was growing up in Alabama, outside of a little town called Troy, we were too poor to have a subscription to a newspaper. But my grandfather had one and each day we would finish reading his newspaper, we would get that newspaper and read it. And I don’t want to get in trouble here with some of you electronic journalism majors and reporters and all of that. But there’s something about a newspaper that’s so different. You can pick it up, lay it down, come back and read it again. So when I was growing up I had a teacher who said “Read my child, read.” I tried to read everything, anything I could get my hands on.
Robin, my friend. She was the best. She was the real deal. Thank you for remembering her tonight. I don’t know what she would think about political reporting today, really. She’s watching some of you tonight. You should be careful, very careful. She didn’t agree with gotcha journalism, or sensationalism. She knew that politics affected people from the cradle to the grave. And she knew that people were depending on her, that they needed information to be delivered to make important decisions in their lives. People read the news because they trust it. It gives them critical information they need. It helps them decide who to vote for. It describes trends that people in business and legislature need to know exist. But more important, it shares the stories of the people. It demonstrates to power brokers of public policy, business and politics in their lives. It informs us about each other and helps us keep a pulse on our democracy and on the world at large. A good political reporter helps represent the people they serve and Robin knew this most. We need reporters today like Robin Toner. More than ever before. We have access to so much information, but there’s no one to help us analyze what’s coming at us. There’s so few people who we can trust to check and double-check and make sure they have it right. So few reporters are well-educated about the hard, complex issues. Where are the investigative reporters that get out there and search and dig and never give up or give in like a Robin Toner? The cult of celebrity has overtaken the mandate that still remains at the heart of journalism, to give people the information they need to govern their lives effectively. That’s why this prize is so important. Karen, Jennifer, I want to congratulate you. I want to congratulate you for attempting to fill the shoes of Robin Toner. She set a high standard. A very high standard. It’s my hope that reporters for generations yet unborn will try to measure up to the standards set by Robin Toner. Thank you very much.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Thank you. If I could have your attention again please. Please enjoy your coffee and desserts. The chocolate is my choice so that’s why you have it. Thank you. And I want to remind everyone that we could not have this extraordinary celebration without some wonderful people. There is a very special person that needs some recognition too and that of course is Peter Gosselin. He doesn’t know about this.
PETER GOSSELIN: This was the year I was not going to speak because the kids have got to start getting it. They’re inheriting this thing, you know, and it’s just got to keep going. I won’t say very much. Just that you’ve been very patient, I mean we’re completely off the schedule that I wrote 15 times. I mean, I knew you weren’t going to get your entree until the vice president left because the Secret Service thought the catering kitchen was an immense threat. But I didn’t know everything was going to go on for so long. Just as you showed patience here tonight, I hope you’ll show patience in continuing to support this program. It’s a new thing, it’s small in the world of Washington and in the world of Syracuse. It needs your support. But if we make it work, it could be the premiere prize in political reporting. And I just say, Rob – even though she would have immense doubts of having a picture up and her name on it – she always had a gripe, which was that the investigative reporters, which always got the prizes and the political reporters did the work. And it galled her to no end and so this is an attempt to change the balance a little. Your support in coming tonight and in the coming years will be greatly appreciated by my family and I hope by political journalists of the coming generation. Thank you very much.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: We also want to thank some wonderful people who made this possible by their generosity. We’ve already mentioned to you the Kaiser Family Foundation. And we want to thank especially our very generous sponsors who helped us with the bar bill and the food and they are, of course, Bloomberg, the Dewey Square Group, Hilltop Public Solutions, Google. I proposed naming a drink the Google Glass but that didn’t go anywhere. Lake Research Partners, the Tarrance Group and The Washington Post. Thanks again to all of them and to all of you for coming and for making this such a special occasion. Goodnight and have chocolate.