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Fishing With Howell


Howell Raines with his dog, Pokey, near his house in Pennsylvania.  

Raines about ran into another car, and Jeff said, “Watch it, Dad.”

Hearing Raines’s riffs left the feeling that here was a great engine up on the blocks. Why wasn’t he still running the Times?

Back at Jeff’s house, a little thing happened. A guy who had been displaced by the hurricane had moved in across the street, and he was outside, sorting through stuff in his pickup. He wanted to talk, tell us his sad story. I lingered in the street to talk to him for a minute, but Raines was impatient to get inside, and I felt rude either way. Here was a real-life victim, he didn’t care. Then Raines saw I was interested in the guy and he came back into the street. “Well, you know what they say. We say we want justice when all we really need is mercy,” he said. Then everyone smiled politely and we went inside.

At Jeff’s house, Raines gave me the book galley with instructions not to share it. As soon as I got on my plane, I cracked it open.

Scribner had said that Raines had said all he had to say about the Times in a critical Atlantic magazine piece in 2004. The One That Got Away was mostly about fishing and writing, and included a majestic narrative of Raines’s battle with a marlin in the South Pacific. There was a folksy humor too. At one point, Raines imagines God chiding him: “Listen, through a happenstance that even I do not fully understand, you have wound up as Editorial Page Editor of the New York Times. Next time I’ll be more careful.”

But toward the end, the book felt like a fish costume on a different book. It told a story about the Times that was a lot like the article two years back: how Raines the crusading journalist had tried to shake up a dust-covered institution that was dying, its circulation flat, but the bureaucrats had risen up against him.

Raines was born in 1943, the son of a successful manufacturer of department-store fixtures in Birmingham, Alabama, and as a young man dreamed of becoming a novelist à la William Faulkner. But when he went to graduate school in Tuscaloosa, he discovered that the life of the belletrist was too unengaged. He needed action and experience. Having dabbled in newsrooms, he came to understand that he craved the rush of news. So in his mid-twenties, he threw himself into what he calls his second love, journalism.

Things came easily to him. He was charming and smart; he and his first wife, Susan Woodley, a photographer, made an attractive couple. He was a natural writer, and he understood politics. Not just electoral politics but the newsroom variety. And the righteousness of his personal ambition was married to a righteous cause: the civil-rights movement.

“From the beginning, he was the sort of Southerner I trusted. Very blunt-spoken and very direct, but also very modern,” says Eugene Patterson, the former editor of the St. Petersburg Times. “He was not a throwback to the old Dixie. He was a reader and a thinker, especially on race issues. A person with impatience and revolt against the southern attitude that had hold of the South, the old Dixie bubba thing . . . Howell was one of the strong men down here.”

Patterson says that when he got calls from politician friends complaining, he could see Raines watching him steely-eyed at his desk to see if he buckled.

Raines was the best hire Patterson ever made, but after two years, Raines was gone. More than anything, he was ambitious. In 1977, at 34, he simultaneously published two splendid books, a novel called Whiskey Man, about Depression-era Alabama, and an oral history of the civil-rights movement called My Soul Is Rested. He had worked out the last literary problems in the novel on a legal pad in the back of a plane—after one Beefeater martini and before several more—flying east and still high from seeing Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in the ’76 California primary. With some shrewdness, he had then played the publishers, not letting either one know the books were coming out simultaneously. The bang-bang publication was a careerist coup. Patterson says that Times executive editor A. M. Rosenthal saw the books and asked, “Who is this guy?”

Raines’s ascent at the Times began in the Atlanta bureau. The Times had a tradition of promoting Southerners, and Raines wasn’t above playing that card with humorous colloquialisms. At first, the Times’ rigid deadlines got to him. “I was anxious in a way I didn’t like. Then I said, ‘They can’t hang me, they can’t make my family quit loving me if I don’t make it,’ ” and he got over it. He was courtly and engaging and high-minded. He had presence. He was an instinctual writer and storyteller. It came from his hillbilly roots: Scotch-Irish men who sang and fiddled and drank all night in the road. Soon they were using Raines leads in the Times stylebook.


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