Maggie and Me
July 26, 2017—15 minute read
My take on Maggie Haberman, a friend, rival and journalism's brightest star
If you've never witnessed a newspaper war like the one raging between the New York Times and Washington Post — a fight to try to prove that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia — consider one insider's view of this journalistic phenomenon, which invigorates newsrooms and benefits the reading public.
And, what’s more, how my participating in such battles led to an appreciation for the work of a woman who finds herself in the middle of the current fray—Maggie Haberman.
She's probably the most recognizable name in print reporting right now, Donald Trump's extolled frenemy, a front-line combatant at the Times and schoolyard crush, professionally speaking, of David Remnick, whose recent sitdown with her in the New Yorker touched on Maggie's role in that remarkable interview with The Donald, along with her legion of fans.
But for years, she was my fiercest rival.
The two of us go back more than a decade, when Maggie worked for the New York Daily News and I was on staff at the New York Post. Like Frazier and Ali, the two papers are defined by their mutual hatred, slugging it out for scoops on every big story in clashes that have made, and destroyed, careers.
In the summer of 2003, no story was bigger than the scandalous love affair between Kerry Kennedy, wife of then-gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Cuomo, and a dashing, married playboy named Bruce Colley.
Maggie drew first blood. She and George Rush broke the news about Colley on the Fourth of July 2003, under the headline: "Meet the Other Man." The story, based on information from Bruce's friends, revealed that Colley, a nightclub owner, polo player and all around bon vivant, had hooked up with Kerry, the tall blonde niece of JFK, and that their fling was the reason Andrew had filed for divorce from her.
In tabloid New York, it was game on.
The very morning Maggie and George's story came out, my editor, Lauren Ramsby, issued me an ironclad mandate: get something exclusive for this coming Sunday's paper. Or else...
At the time, I was still fairly new to the Post's Sunday team, an investigative unit charged with probing behind the scenes of stories, finding scoops across the city — and beating the Daily News. There might not have been any job in journalism that came with more pressure. You delivered or you were gone.
The Kennedy-Colley caper terrified me. My strength was crime and corruption, not politics, certainly not celebrity affairs, so I lacked the sources needed for it. What could I do? By then it was already Friday, which meant I had all of 36 hours to come up with something blockbuster before we went to print that Sunday.
I started researching Colley and phoning anyone who might have been a friend of his. That didn't work. At about 5 p.m. on Friday, Lauren summoned me to her office.
"What have you got?" she demanded. "Nothing yet," I said. "Still working on it."
My only other idea was to try Colley's ex-wife, Susan. I reached her at her place of work, an upscale home furnishings store, and she agreed to speak with me later that evening after she returned to her apartment. I let Lauren know. "You have to get her back on the phone — and get her to tell you everything," she said.
No matter how much strain or duress you might be under in the newsroom, you cannot pass along anxiety as you do an interview; it can make your subject nervous. So imagine how I felt, just moments after reaching Susan Colley, when Lauren darted out of her office and plopped down next to me, pulling up a chair as I did my best with this brand new source.
"Hey, Susan, it's Brad again from the Post. Is now OK?" I asked. She said it was. "So how are you doing through all this? I’m guessing you probably know Bruce better than anyone, and it can't be easy for him."
"That's true," she said.
Susan explained that she had remained close to her ex-husband, despite their split — and that Bruce had told her intimate details about his ongoing affair with Kerry Kennedy.
"Bruce never has bad intentions," she said, noting that he'd "fooled around" on her during their 14 years as husband and wife. "It's part of who he is, but I love him and we're still best friends."
While I listened, Lauren excitedly scribbled down questions she wanted me to ask. Nothing like having your boss breathe down your neck as you do your job, right? In any case, Susan proceeded to talk, and everything seemed great until she said, "By the way, all of this has to be off the record."
"What? Why?" I said.
"It just can't get back to me," she said. "Bruce trusts me and wouldn't want me to be talking to the press."
"Totally understand," I said.
Actually, I disagreed strongly, but I needed time to think. Susan's surprise statement created a dilemma of the kind that confronts reporters from time to time. A source goes on and on, giving you all kinds of valuable information, and then casually announces that none of it is OK to print.
Technically speaking, according to the established rules of engagement, "off the record" means you can't use what you learn in any way whatsoever. You can't even tell others the information, much less publish it. But those same guidelines also make clear that once a source has spoken, she or he can't retroactively demand that their statements not be used. Which was the case with Colley. She hadn't asked up front.
Here was the conundrum.
Susan struck me as a decent person who had confided in me but clearly was not fully informed about journalism's dictates, so my going ahead anyway, telling her too bad, would have upset her. Which might have prompted blowback after the story ran. She could say she was misquoted. She could even claim that I'd never spoken to her. Either way, it might well have been awful for the paper. Also, she'd likely never talk to me again, and I needed to keep her as a source.
I figured she didn't really mean "off the record," but rather "not for attribution" — a common conflation. In other words, she was probably OK with my publishing her information as long as she wasn't quoted directly.
"I really do get where you're coming from," I said to her. "But two things. First you're telling me some insightful and important stuff about Bruce, good qualities of his that the public should know. Second, he's going to know that it's coming from you. Who else would have all these key details?"
"I see what you're saying," she said. Susan wanted to think it over.
Ultimately, I suggested a compromise — and a way out for her.
I recommended she inform Bruce about our conversation, before we published our story. "Tell him," I said. "Make it clear that your speaking to me comes from this need to let people see the real Bruce Colley, from someone who knows him and loves him, rather than second-hand gossip and innuendo. Chances are that he'll understand." I added: "It's really important that you not speak to anyone else in the media."
She agreed, allowing me to use a few of her quotes, but she insisted that some of her revelations not be attributed to her, and that others be left out altogether. I said OK.
Lauren was thrilled but pressed for more. "See if she'll give us photos," she said, and started throwing out headline ideas for a front page.
I went back to Bruce Colley's friends, the ones I'd tried before, and let them know I had direct confirmation about the affair. Two of them agreed to speak with me, without attribution, and essentially filled in some of what Susan Colley didn't want to be quoted on, including that Bruce said he'd fallen in love with Kerry and wanted to leave his wife, Ann, for her.
My colleague Jeane MacIntosh helped greatly, particularly when we learned that Kerry felt hurt that Bruce had continued to deny their affair publicly. The end result was exactly what Lauren had demanded of me: a front-page zinger.
We'd scooped the Daily News.
I only felt joy and relief, never considering what the impact might have been on the other side of the battlefield, for Maggie and others covering the story. But I would get a clue the following year, when I met Maggie for the first time and we again found ourselves competing for information.
It was 2004 and the Republican National Convention was coming to New York. There were two local stars for that event: Governor George Pataki and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, both of whom were considered strong presidential contenders. The duo would spend the convention fighting for endorsements, publicity and money. My job was to cover Rudy.
"We want to know everything he does during the week," Lauren told me. "Follow him everywhere he goes. Chronicle every single move, every person he talks to. You'll be his shadow 24/7."
As it turned out, Maggie and I spent a lot of time together during the convention. She was lead reporter for the Daily News, and knew much more about what was going on than I did. Politics was her specialty, and she'd met many of the key players. To my surprise, she was friendly and consistently helpful to me during that week.
I remember one afternoon having lunch with her and another reporter. There was a bit of a break in the action, so we three took the opportunity to sit down together at an outdoor café in midtown. Maggie launched into a tutorial on dramas and strategies in play as the GOP moved forward naming incumbent George W. Bush its nominee. I had never experienced this kind of help from a rival. She knew I was tracking the former mayor, whose big black SUV was parked across the street, but that didn't stop her from giving me valuable insights about him. As Rudy remained inside the vehicle, we watched and waited.
Suddenly he got out and darted inside the Brioni's men's store. I remember vaulting over the sidewalk café barrier and following him in. There, I pretended to be a customer — and saw Giuliani greet an Orthodox man. They talked fundraising.
"Wild," I said to Maggie after I returned to our table. "He was in there buying a $5,000 suit and chatting with a guy I've never seen before." We spotted the Orthodox man leaving the store. She knew who he was — an influential businessman in Brooklyn and political donor — and filled me in on the importance of his endorsing Giuliani.
"Thanks so much," I told her. "That's really useful." I wasn't lying. My piece would have been much worse without her assistance.
"I have to tell you something," she said. "You remember the Bruce Colley story, right?"
"Sure," I said.
"Well, that Susan Colley, who gave that story? An hour before you called her, I was on the phone with her, trying to get her to talk to me."
A brief look of anguish passed over her face, and suddenly I found myself in a disturbing reality check. I remembered how important that scoop had been for me at the Post, a moment when I came through on an extremely tight deadline. How afterward Lauren trusted me and relied on me for some of the most challenging stories. How that success helped propel my career.
And what would have happened instead, had Susan Colley gotten off the phone with me and told all to Maggie?
"Oh, crap," I said. "I'm really sorry about that. I had no idea." I was imagining how much heat I would have taken. I was thinking how easily I could have been demoted. And that all those negatives were likely in play for her, this engaging rival who had just extended herself when I needed a hand.
"No, no, no," she said. "It was a great exclusive. You beat me fair and square."
So you can see why I love Maggie Haberman, too.
She's smart, tireless, insightful — and an exemplary human being. She came to my aid when she didn't have to, when she might have had every reason to be resentful and turn her back. Her impetus is the opposite. She gives credit to colleagues and competitors, including in that interview with Remnick, and deflects praise when it's directed at herself. That's rare in our industry, which has its share of arrogant jerks.
It probably helps that she's been surrounded by good people and good journalists all her life.
Her father Clyde started as a copy boy at the New York Times in 1964, the year I was born, and his byline became one I would look for when I started reading the paper religiously as a teen. Her husband, Dareh, is exceptional as a reporter — I worked with him many times at the Post — and one of the nicest, most unassuming guys in any newsroom. Maggie's brother, Zach, another journalist I know fairly well, has all those qualities too.
Fortunately for me, I had the chance to work with Maggie a few years later when she changed sides, leaving the Daily News to join the Post. Finally, we would be collaborating on stories instead of trying to beat each other.
Our biggest story together came out of nowhere.
A high-placed source who felt like he owed me a favor called with a tip about David Paterson, then the governor of New York. It was 2006, and this tipster had been a guest at a private dinner that Paterson hosted. He had juicy gossip to share.
I again found myself weighing in on a political matter without knowing much about the subject. And by some quirk, the story involved another member of the Camelot clan: Caroline Kennedy, who had hoped Paterson would name her interim U.S. Senator, after the seat was vacated when Hillary Clinton got appointed Secretary of State. So I asked Maggie to join forces with me on the story.
The result was an exclusive that revealed that Paterson, who favored Kirsten Gillibrand, had ripped Kennedy to his friends — a behind-the-scenes spat involving powerbrokers during a sensitive time for the governor. It was exactly the kind of frothy fare that tabloids adore. (I've included the story below.)
"You're such a good reporter," Maggie said when the story ran. I blushed. It was the best professional compliment I'd every received. "Nonsense," I told her. "Just got lucky."
Before I wrote this piece, I reached out to Maggie to let her know what I planned. Her response was predicable.
"Thank you for the heads up," she sent in a message. "You don't need to write about me!!"
I protested that she was a rock star in this business. "I'm not a rock star," she claimed. She's wrong, of course. "You got some serious fans out there," I said.
"Oh stop," she said.
Sorry. Too late.
Gov. Paterson rapped Caroline Kennedy at a private event the night before he tapped Kirsten Gillibrand for the Senate, telling guests Kennedy had been "nasty" to him and shown "disrespect" with how she bowed out, attendees told The Post.
The governor's attack came just hours after his office issued a statement wishing her well and disavowing quotes from a source close to him who had told The Post Kennedy had never been in true contention for the seat and was "mired" in personal issues.
And the gripes came a day after Kennedy pulled out of the race on the heels of hours of tit-for-tat between the two sides.
Asked at the event about what had happened with Kennedy, Paterson told the group that he was put off by how the neophyte politician handled her withdrawal from the race for Hillary Clinton's seat.
Much of the issue was "about respect," said one guest.
Paterson said that Kennedy had called him to say she was having second thoughts and "he asked her to wait a day and he thought she had agreed," another attendee recalled.
Then, he said, he couldn't get her on the phone for hours.
"He was absolutely frustrated that he couldn't reach her," the guest said of how Paterson described the scene. "He thought maybe she was sick. He felt she was being nasty to him, that she showed great disrespect."
Kennedy's six-week political career was marked by a string of miscues as she faired poorly in interviews and was hit by criticism and questions about whether she was up to the job.
As for Paterson on Thursday, a source close to him said Kennedy was never in true contention because of issues over taxes, a nanny and questions about her marriage.
Later in the day, the governor's statement insisted nothing that came up in the vetting process had been disqualifying.
Paterson told the group Thursday night he didn't believe she'd left the race because of "any of those issues," one of the guests said, but added the governor didn't know what the reason was.
Kennedy's team insists she "became aware of a personal issue" midday Wednesday, called to drop out, and the governor asked her to give it 24 hours to think about it. Then, after going back and forth, she threw in the towel.
But her side claims she'd been led to believe she was likely to get the nod.
After dining in Midtown last night, Kennedy said of Gillibrand:
"I wish her well and I wish her good luck."
A Kennedy aide who was asked about Paterson's remarks, replied the governor was going "nuclear" because "he doesn't want it to look like Gillibrand was his second choice."
The governor's office had no comment.