Seventeen years had come and gone, and our roles had changed. By 1995, Bob Timberg was no longer a political reporter chasing suspected corruption in Baltimore County; I was no longer his sidekick. He was deputy chief of the Baltimore Sun’s Washington bureau and the author of a new and excellent book, “The Nightingale’s Song,” about the Iran-Contra scandal, the U.S. Naval Academy and Vietnam. I was already 16 years a columnist and the host of a nightly radio show. Bob was my guest.
And I got it wrong. I blew it.
Bob waited until the first commercial break to tell me so.
You have no idea how crushing the moment. Bob had been an ace reporter for The Evening Sun, obsessive about getting it right and being fair, and I had learned all about that at his side in the late 1970s. “Painstaking” describes his approach. His fact-gathering was comprehensive. He devoured details. So, having served with the master, you can imagine how I felt the night of the radio show.
In setting up the live interview, I had misstated a biographical fact about one of the key subjects of Bob’s book, an examination of the men, veterans of Vietnam, involved in the Iran-Contra operation during the Reagan administration. Bob had worked seven years on that book. My flub was relatively small -- a matter of four or five words in a lengthy, written summary of the complex issues explored in “Nightingale” -- but it was still wrong. And Bob let me know it at the first opportunity.
He was not angry. But he was direct and firm, giving some of the tough love I had experienced when I was a cub reporter working at his side. I corrected the record as soon as we went back on the air.
Still, I felt I had let Bob down. If there was anything I should have picked up from working with him on the old Evening Sun, it was the importance of precision, double-checking your facts, reading and rereading the words you’ve written, for print or broadcast or eulogy.
Certainly I had served editors who punished reporters for factual errors. But, as I reflect on it today, it was Bob Timberg who set standards for those who worked in his presence. You could listen to him talk through a news story, or just watch him take notes or eavesdrop on his telephone interviews, and get a fast education in professional journalism.
He died the other day at 76, having had a rich career after his near-death experience as a Marine officer in Vietnam. The war had left him physically and psychologically scarred, but Bob came back from ghastly trauma to pursue news reporting, first in Annapolis, then in Baltimore and Washington.
By the time I met him, 10 years after he suffered his disfiguring burns in Vietnam, he was thriving as a political reporter for the Evening Sun, enjoying the respect of his peers and the public officials he covered, even those his reporting had exposed as shady. He spent little time in self-pity. He kept moving, kept searching for the next story.
Bob was certainly one of the toughest men I ever knew. But he had a gentle soul -- compassion nicely balanced with skepticism. He maintained an objectivity about government and authority though, given what had happened in Vietnam, he easily could have become cynical and bitter and incapacitated as a journalist. He was self-effacing and, given his accomplishments -- reporter and editor, Nieman Fellow, author of four books -- a genuinely modest man. (I never heard Bob brag except when he spoke of his children.)
Alex Jones, the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, speaks of the “iron core of journalism” essential to a functioning democracy -- the solid, everyday news organizations that deliver the news, as thoroughly and as objectively as possible. I will always think of Bob Timberg as being part of that “iron core,” and an iron man among us.