Looked at coolly, the particulars cited by Mnookin et al. were proof only of Blair’s compulsive ass-kissing. Macarena Hernandez was in Blair’s internship class and later, from the San Antonio Express-News, blew the whistle on his plagiarism. One evening in the Times newsroom, she said, she saw Boyd approach Blair, “and whatever Jayson was saying, I could see that Gerald wasn’t having any of it.” She could read Boyd’s body language: Don’t play me.
The portrayal of Gerald Boyd as Blair’s godfather, in sum, was a crude case of racial profiling. In its virulence and indignation, it reprised the old fury over Max Frankel’s aborted quota—the lurking conviction that black people didn’t belong at the Times, and surely not so close to the throne.
Perhaps the last word on this subject belongs to the one who’d know best, if we care to believe him. In an interview with the New York Observer in May 2003, Blair said he considered the managing editor an “antagonist” who attempted to block his progress at the Times. “To suggest he was my mentor is not a fair characterization,” Blair continued. “It’s an assumption based on race that’s silly. And I don’t like him! How did Gerald become my mentor?”
Toward the end, as Raines and Boyd twisted slowly, Sulzberger seemed to sink deep into his bunker, keeping his own counsel. On June 4, the publisher called in his designated change agent and sacked him, adding that he’d be “asking Gerald to leave as well because we were a team,” Raines said.
Did he challenge the decision to end Boyd’s career at the Times? “I didn’t fire Gerald,” Raines said firmly. “Arthur Sulzberger did. And my reading—and I’ve known Arthur for a long time—was that his mind was made up.”
While most everyone had figured that Raines was gone, Boyd sparked a gasp when he took the microphone in the newsroom the next morning. He looked teary, untethered. He was stepping down “with no bitterness or rancor,” he said. He extolled the Times as “the world’s greatest newspaper, no matter who leads it.”
He was 52 years old, in the prime of his executive life.
Later that day, Boyd told Zachary that he was leaving the Times to do something else. The 6-year-old burst into tears. “How could you leave?” he wailed. “The Times is a public trust!”
As the Times steadied under interim chief Joe Lelyveld, Boyd’s firing remained controversial. Deborah Sontag, one of his old metro reporters, suggested on CNN that a newsroom straw poll would show “an overwhelming majority” in favor of keeping him at the paper, if not as managing editor. Whatever Boyd’s flaws, he was perceived, Todd Purdum said, as “this kind of hopeless, collateral victim of it all.” Some saw little practical distinction between Boyd and assistant managing editor Andy Rosenthal, son of Abe and the third leg of Raines’s abrasive “troika.” But when push came to exile, Rosenthal found the softest of landings, as deputy editor of the editorial page, while Boyd was cast out.
Sulzberger certainly had options. He might have moved Boyd to the business side or simply granted a leave until the fallout settled. Although some doubt that Boyd would have taken a demotion, Stone believes her husband might have stayed on, even outside the newsroom for a time, because he “loved being a Timesman so much.” But he never had the choice.
Behr, among many others, has strong sentiments on this point: “I think we should have had the grace to keep him in some way. Enough people had seen the truth of Gerald, and the sweetness and compassion and vision. He made mistakes, but a lot of people make mistakes, and they do fine afterward.”
“We really whacked him,” Behr said. “We did, we whacked him.”
In July 2003, as Lelyveld stepped down again to make way for Keller, the company had another chance. Lelyveld advised his protégé that he “could do a lot worse” than Boyd as his next Washington bureau chief. The job played to Boyd’s strengths; others had similar ideas. But again, nothing happened.
Left with no comment from Sulzberger, we can only speculate as to why Boyd could not be rehabilitated. We know that the mocking coverage of the Blair scandal unsettled the Times board and the Sulzberger family. We know that the publisher had led the charge “to get our white male house in order” as he once put it—and so was all the more sensitive to charges of political correctness. One thesis making the rounds was that Sulzberger “couldn’t kill the white guy and save the black guy.”
The American redemption saga belongs, by and large, to white people; there are fewer second acts for the rest. In his crash, Boyd had restored our corrosive national myth, as noted by Times columnist Bob Herbert, that “there is something inherently wrong with blacks.”