Howell Raines told me to come meet him in New Orleans and we’d go fishing in the bayous with his son. We could hit some good restaurants and tour the damage, and then he would give me the galley of his new memoir, The One That Got Away. Later, when we both returned north, we could have the serious conversations.
One afternoon in late March, I checked into Raines’s hotel in the French Quarter, a beautiful restored building called the Soniat House, and at 5:30 I met him downstairs. He hunted the honor bar for Jack Daniel’s, but there was none, so we had vodka. Raines, 63, is a small, thickset man with a very large presence and a hickory-cured voice. We sat in the courtyard near an orange tree and talked about writing and the South. We didn’t talk about the New York Times. Three years ago this June, Raines was forced out as executive editor in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. He’d held the top job for less than two years. But Raines’s publisher had told me that his new book was not about the Times; it was about fishing and coming to his real calling, being a writer.
After a few minutes, we were joined by Raines’s wife, Krystyna, a slender and striking woman many years his junior, wearing a fine Oriental-style dress, and she drove as we went uptown to dinner with Raines’s son and friends. It was a big party, but I stuck at Raines’s elbow, and he seemed to like that. He is gregarious, but he’s not a joker. His charm is focused.
We got going the next morning at five. We fished all day in the bayous without success. Raines seemed disappointed that he had not gotten one, but the landscape was stunning and it was interesting to watch him with his son. He and Jeff, the guitarist for a funk band called Galactic, have an easygoing but formal relationship. There wasn’t much cursing in the boat, no goofiness.
They were respectful with one another, as Jeff poled his father around toward good spots. “Oh, man, we just spooked a big one . . . See him boiling? . . . Don’t worry, there’s more in here for sure . . . That was a jack crevalle . . . Bless your heart, Dad.”
Jeff was loyal. He mentioned that he doesn’t read the Times anymore (though his father does). And when I asked him to describe his father’s fishing technique, he said, “Tenacious. He’s got a beautiful cast. He’s studied the mechanics more than me or my brother and can accomplish more with less effort. He gets a lot of line out with little motion.”
Then Jeff got out sandwiches and Raines talked politics. People have called him charismatic and spellbinding. I saw that on the boat as he talked about political character.
“Ronald Reagan is the most mysterious politician in our experience. You know, Clark Clifford called him an amiable dunce. And Clark Clifford winds up being indicted for bank fraud, and Ronald Reagan ends the Cold War. But at the deepest level—family or political level—Reagan was unknowable.
“I wonder, was Reagan’s decision to up the ante in the arms race intuitive or reasoned? You know, one of Reagan’s secrets, the rubber-chicken dinners people go to because of civic obligation, and we [reporters] go to of necessity—well, Reagan loved them. He was having a great time. And I’m told he liked bawdy jokes. There was a press reception when he was running for president, in a social setting, and he was asked what his physical regime was, and he said, with a wink, ‘I do everything a younger man does.’ It was a guy joke, delivered very cleverly and disarmingly.
“Now I better stop talking. I’ve had two beers. I think I’m going to catch a fish.”
The next day was all politics. Driving around the Lower Ninth Ward, viewing the devastation and the fact that only college kids in white hazmat suits were doing anything, Raines got worked up. He used history to throw a light on what we were seeing. He spoke about the racism that went on in the flood of ’27. He talked about what FDR and LBJ would do with the problem.
“Think what Eisenhower would have done with this! You have to entertain the possibility that Bush can’t think his way through problems like this. Here’s a family that has had every benefit that American society can offer for four generations—wealth, education, social position—and they have no impulse toward repaying anything back to this society that has been so generous to them. Faulkner talks about the human heart in conflict. Well, I see no evidence of conflict in their hearts. Just meanness.”