Tales of Bessman: Bob Simon, Brian Williams and Dengue Fever

There’s Brian Williams, and then there was Bob Simon.

But Bob didn’t make anything up, or devote his time at celebrity. When it came to honesty and integrity in broadcast journalism, he was the real deal.

I was a CBS News guy, back when it was CBS News–a long time ago. Walter Cronkite and the other surviving Murrow’s Boys–and those that followed, including Dan Rather and Bob Simon, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, through Vietnam, Watergate, and the big stories that Bob Simon was so much a part of.

Met Cronkite at Jann Wenner’s 40th birthday party in 1986 at some hot dinner spot in Chelsea or Soho, so trendy that it didn’t have an address or name. I wasn’t invited, of course. But BeauSoleil was playing and they brought me along. I think the only person I knew was Seymour Stein, who introduced me to Ofra Haza. She really was beautiful.

Let’s see. Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, that’s all I remember now. Ahmet Ertegun and every other record company chieftain in New York had to be there. It was a Who’s Who of Rolling Stone magazine covers of the time, and those who made them happen.

And Walter Cronkite. Unlike Williams and CNN, Uncle Walter really was the most trusted name in news–not the most busted. When he told America there was no light at the end of the Vietnam tunnel, LBJ had no choice but to throw in the reelection towel. He even brought Sadat and Begin together.

But when I saw him speak at an event a few years earlier to promote an LP box set of spoken word speeches and news broadcasts (The Way it Was–The Sixties), he said, in response to an obvious question, that the most important story he’d been part of was the moon landing.

I was hugely disappointed. And I told him so at the party. He was clearly taken back, and sheepishly said, “Well, it’s like asking, ‘What’s your favorite soup?’”

I met Dan Rather, another CBS News hero, at another party, to promote James Carville’s 1996 book We’re Right, They’re Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives. I remember telling Carville of my growing concern about Whitewater, which was then getting play in the press, and what it would mean for Clinton’s presidency. He didn’t want to talk about it and brushed me off with something about how it was all politically motivated and wouldn’t amount to anything.

Carville’s wife Mary Matalin was there. I couldn’t stand her so I made a point of introducing myself. She was very sweet. I walked out into the rain just as Dan came in with his PR person, whom I knew when she worked in the record business. She introduced me and I told him what a huge fan I was. He said we should get together for coffee. I still hope it will happen.

I met Bob Simon many years ago walking down 8th Avenue. I stopped him and stammered how he was my hero, how I’d written to him after his capture and release by Iraqi forces in 1991 during the Gulf War–and how he’d written back.

He was quite tall in person, not very warm or humorous–not unfriendly, either, but serious. Pretty much like how he was on the news, throughout a career covering everything from the troubles in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1971, to Vietnam in ’71 (he won an Overseas Press Club award—one of four of them, along with four Peabodys and 27 Emmys–for reporting on Hanoi’s 1972 spring offensive, and another for the fall of Saigon in ’75 when he was on one of the last U.S. choppers to leave), wars in Grenada, Somalia and Haiti; martial law in Poland; Israel during the Yom Kippur War and Egypt after the 2011 uprisings.

For me, his best work was after he was named CBS News’ chief Middle East correspondent in 1987. Jewish, he offered far and away the most even-handed accounts of any mainstream media, rather than the usual one-sided pro-Israel commentary. He had a cutting edge and tone to his reporting, and his brilliant writing—and on-air reading of it—reflected it. A humanitarian, he was fearless and cynical in his war coverage, and I was starstruck and humbled in the presence of a most towering figure in American broadcast journalism.

But sadly, he never did the one story I pitched him, and now never will.

It was at a DVD screening a couple years ago of the documentary Marley . It was sponsored by a big-time Hollywood PR gal, and I was quite surprised to have been invited. I was so insignificant that they never even followed up my interest in interviewing the director.

It was October, 2012, the night of the first Obama-Romney debate. After the screening I hung with Bob at the bar watching it. I also told him about Dengue Fever, my fave band from L.A., featuring Cambodian diva Nimol Chhom and five L.A. rockers who specialized in the little-known rock music originating or deriving from Cambodia in the ‘60s, by artists who perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

I told Bob that the remarkable story of this unique band was right up his alley, and he was interested; having reported from Cambodia and being so sensitive to other peoples and culture–and especially considering that this music was wiped out at least partially as a result of America’s wars in Southeast Asia–he immediately saw the value in an American band enlisting a Cambodian songstress and reviving her country’s rock music legacy.

The next day I emailed him a ton of info on Dengue Fever–much of which I’d written–and he responded: “Thank you. It sounds interesting. I am going on the road for a couple of weeks but will have my assistant look into it.”

Nothing further ever happened, sadly. I emailed him more things from time to time, most recently on Jan. 14, when I sent him the link to a great L.A. Weekly piece. So I’m confident that Dengue Fever’s story will now be told, sooner rather than later, but by someone other than just me.

But no one could have done it like Bob Simon. It’s the saddest thing that it won’t be him.

Tales of Bessman: Jimmy C. Newman and his Cajun Joke

I still consider myself a Grand Ole Opry groupie, even if I haven’t been to the Opry now in years.

Used to get there three, sometimes four times a year. Parked in the artists’ lot and hung out backstage with Roy, Minnie, Porter, Grandpa. They’re all gone and now so is Jimmy C. Newman.

“Folks often tell me that my dad is one of the nicest folks in country music. Jimmy C. Newman was, too!” George Hamilton V told me, and both he and the folks who told him so were right.

“He was the water mark in leadership of being a professional musician who followed his own path, believed in his culture and his vision,” said BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet. “And he always had a joke going that kept everyone around him uplifted in the spirit of the moment in doing and being the best they could be in any situation.”

He had a special joke for me every time I greeted him backstage at the Opry, though it wasn’t so much a joke as a code.

“Bessyl’s out in the parking lot checking the tires,” he said. “You better go help him.”

Jimmy C.’s longtime accordionist Bessyl Duhon, son of Cajun fiddle great Hector Duhon—and why couldn’t I have been named Hector, or Bessyl, or at the very least, Jimmy C.?—was indeed out in the parking lot, but he surely wasn’t checking the tires, if you catch my splift.

“I always encouraged my band to smoke pot,” Jimmy explained to me many years ago. “When they drank, they tore up the bus!”

He was speaking mainly of Rufus, I think. Rufus Thibideaux. The legendary Cajun fiddler who played with everyone from Bob Wills to Neil Young—I saw him when Neil played at the pier across from the Intrepid in 1985, I think, when Young was touring with the top Nashville session players he used on Old Ways–and played with Jimmy from 1952 pretty much up until his death in 2005.

I loved Rufus, but Rufus was from a different part of the culture. He used to tell me N-word jokes backstage at the Opry and I laughed, heartily, out of respect to him. He was already an old man, his prejudices ingrained, and by this point, harmless; after all, he was a fiddler.

Jimmy C. never told jokes like that, at least not in my presence. He truly was one of the nicest folks in country music. I’m proud I wrote the liner notes to his 1991 album Alligator Man, and was there to extol the merits of his last album, Jimmy C. Newman Sings Swamp Country.