Veteran CBS journalist Peter Maer reflects on 40-year career

Longtime CBS broadcast journalist Peter Maer will be the featured speaker at B’nai B’rith’s Institute of Judaism on Oct. 15. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Granite City native Peter Maer, who covered the White House for 17 years for CBS News as part of his nearly 40 years in broadcast journalism, will be the featured speaker at a B’nai B’rith St. Louis program Thursday, Oct. 15, at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur.

Maer said his talk will include stories relating to the Middle East, Israel, Soviet Jewry and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. He said he plans to discuss President Ronald Reagan’s first trip to the Soviet Union and tell how he (Maer) “smuggled” Jewish prayer books to Refuseniks who were eager to leave the USSR. 

Maer will also describe the poignant and dramatic scene aboard Air Force One as President Bill Clinton led a U.S. delegation to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and he will  analyze the impact of President Barack Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Maer has won numerous awards in journalism, including an Edward R. Murrow Award for coverage of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and another for feature reporting. He is a five-time recipient of the Merriman Smith Award for presidential coverage under deadline pressure.

While growing up in the St. Louis area, Maer attended United Hebrew Congregation, where he became a bar mitzvah and was confirmed during the tenure of the late Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman. 

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Maer is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and has twice served as the school’s commencement speaker. Maer and his wife, Eizabeth Doyne Maer, have two grown children and five grandchildren.

The Jewish Light caught up with Maer at his Fairfax, Va., home for an interview in anticipation of his St. Louis talk.

 

You’ve had the honor of speaking to many presidents, starting with Jimmy Carter, who negotiated the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. More recently, Carter has been a harsh critic of Israel, even comparing its treatment of Palestinians to apartheid. How have your views on his presidency and post-presidency changed? 

My views on Jimmy Carter really haven’t changed. He is a real “what you see is what you get” person, something that’s rare among politicians. He is a man of authentic faith, and he also has the analytical mind of an engineer. 

He has indeed been a harsh critic of Israel, especially of the Netanyahu government. He even managed to take a swipe at the prime minister during the recent news conference where he discussed his (Carter’s) cancer diagnosis, saying Netanyahu doesn’t want peace. 

Carter’s claim of an Israeli apartheid policy was obviously painful for many supporters of Israel, and he lost the backing of some of his most ardent followers and even former staff members dating back to ’70s. Carter clearly wants to be remembered for his crowning foreign policy achievement. He reminded his recent audience that the decades-old Camp David Accords have never been breached. The “cold peace” agreement between Egypt and Israel has survived.

 

Turning to today, do you think the breach between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be healed while both are still in office? Do you recall any previous time when relations between a U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister have been so negative?

U.S.-Israeli relations are clearly at the lowest point of the Obama presidency and the lowest point of my lifetime. The factors at play are well-known, but it’s important to remember it is not the first time U.S. and Israeli leaders have been at odds. 

I recall the era when President Reagan threatened to cut off weapons supplies over Israeli actions in the war with Lebanon. Then there was the Reagan administration’s decision to sell AWACS aircraft to Israel’s enemy, Saudi Arabia. Relations were particularly frosty at times during the George H.W. Bush administration. Secretary of State James Baker reportedly uttered some expletives about Israel.  Some old timers believe the relationship was even worse during the Eisenhower years and the clash over the Suez Canal. 

Netanyahu’s attitude also rubbed President Clinton the wrong way. According to some accounts, he reportedly asked, “Who’s the (expletive) superpower here?” after a contentious White House meeting with Netanyahu.

 

And more recently? 

Netanyahu has repeatedly found ways, to say the least, to antagonize the Obama White House. … I naively thought the Obama-Netanyahu relationship improved when the president visited Israel. Heading into that trip, I attended briefings with Israeli officials who said when it came to military support and intelligence sharing, Obama was Israel’s best friend. 

Developments after that proved my initial positive assessment to be wrong. We saw what I viewed as an extraordinarily egregious diplomatic breach, Netanyahu’s move going around the administration with his speech to Congress timed shortly before his own election. Some will say the roots of the frosty relations really go back to Obama’s Cairo speech shortly after he took office.

I thought then and still believe it was a major mistake for him to be in the region without paying at least a courtesy call on Israel.

 

So, will relations be mended anytime soon?

President Obama recently told his Web chat with Jewish leaders that he expected the situation would improve soon after the Iran nuclear deal debate cools down. I think we’ll have to wait for the next president and prime minister to really patch things up. 

Meanwhile, as someone who has supported many Jewish causes over the years, I am deeply concerned about the impact of the Iran debate on the community. Organizations that should know better chose sides, upsetting key members, so the Jewish community itself, in many cities, will have some fence-mending in coming months.

 

You were on Air Force One as President Clinton traveled to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Describe your emotions on that flight and during the funeral for Rabin. Did hopes for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians die with Rabin back in 1995?

History would indicate those hopes did die with him. As for my own feelings, like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened when I heard first reports of Rabin’s killing. President Clinton’s “Shalom Chaver” statement was especially moving. I was on a family vacation at the time and rushed back to Washington to serve as the radio network pool reporter aboard Air Force One on the sad flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Israel. I’ll talk more about the inside story of that trip in my St. Louis speech. It’s still fascinating after all these years.

 

Having grown up at United Hebrew, were you inspired or influenced by Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman, who was very outspoken on Israel and other issues?

I was indeed influenced by Rabbi Grollman. I only wish I could remember his quiet comments to me on the bimah on my bar mitzvah day. While I was too young to fully comprehend the scope of his involvement in the civil rights movement, in retrospect I marvel at his courage and leadership. 

I also still recall looks of disdain on the faces of some congregants when he spoke out on various issues — not only civil rights — even if I didn’t understand why his views upset some people. 

I continued to correspond with Rabbi Grollman, and I cherish letters received from him. United Hebrew has been blessed by wonderful clergy over the years. The congregation’s rich history and current structure mean so much, especially to my mother, Dorothy Maer. UH continues to be a major part of my 90-year-old mom’s very active life.

 

You received an Edward R. Murrow Award for your coverage of the Clinton impeachment trial. How would you rank that story among others on the presidential beat you covered for so many years? What qualities of President Clinton empowered him to survive the impeachment and scandal that prompted it?

It was an honor to be part of the CBS News team that received that special award. The impeachment still ranks among the stories that I (and other White House reporters) never thought we’d cover — I include the election of the son of a president and the election of the nation’s first black president on that list. 

We could assess Clinton’s survival for hours. He and his legal team were able to use the partisan structure of Congress to their advantage but, as we know, with his actions and initial lack of truthfulness, Bill Clinton put the nation to an unprecedented test in modern times.

 

Any other thoughts you might want to share about your career or your upcoming role as scholar-in-residence for the B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism?

This kid from Granite City has truly been blessed, first and foremost with a wonderful and supportive family, and by good timing that took me to my career goal of covering the White House for CBS News. I’m so flattered that my fellow East Side native [and B’nai B’rith St. Louis President] Harvey Hieken and the B’nai B’rith leadership invited me.

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