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Fishing With Howell

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Raines with son Ben on Darky Lake, Quetico Provinvial Park, Ontario, Canada, in 1993.  

Raines found himself more interested in power than in writing. Within seven years, he had left writing to become deputy Washington editor and thereby take part in the great game of the Times: executive competition. A couple of years later, Times executive editor Max Frankel chose Joe Lelyveld as foreign editor, and then Frankel had to fly to Washington to “persuade an obviously hurt, passed-over” Raines to take Lelyveld’s former job as London bureau chief and broaden his skills.

That’s a story from Frankel’s autobiography, not from Raines. If Raines had everything, one thing he did not have was comfort with his dark emotions. He held hurts in. When he differed with his father and older brother over the sale of family land in Florida, his way was not to quarrel or have it out but not to speak to his brother, and only occasionally to his father, for several years, till he got past the feelings and things went smooth again. Raines was similarly repressed when it came to defeats at work. In 1993, he published a best-selling memoir, Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, that spoke movingly of “the black dog” of depression that comes to men’s lives in their forties or fifties, after disappointments. The problem for the reader who wants to sympathize was that Raines didn’t really tell where it hurts. The end of his long marriage, for instance, took place in a curt sentence or two: They’d stopped getting along.

The most confessional aspect of Raines’s new book is its descriptions of his move up the ladder. Times editors are usually closemouthed about this stuff. But Raines shows himself courting Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in the nineties to get a crack at the executive editorship when it opened up in 2001. Raines again put his heart’s first calling—writing books—on hold in order to serve Sulzberger as editorial-page editor and scheme to be pope. It was worth the “six-year wait,” he says.

“If passed over, I would bail out of the Times immediately to try to make up for the lost years of my writing career.”

There’s a lot of scar tissue, but Raines is unhealed. Of Sulzberger’s decision to fire him, he said, “none of us will ever know whether it was the right decision.”

People I knew at the Times had described that courtship satirically. How Raines wore red suspenders and gold-toed socks like Arthur and slipped off his shoes to put his feet up on the desk as he cultivated to a fare-thee-well. How Arthur, the scion famous for being tentative and callow, seemed to glow when Raines’s confidence was projected on him.

The One That Got Away is kind to Sulzberger, describing him as highly intelligent despite his insecurities. It is much harder on Lelyveld, Raines’s predecessor as executive editor, and his interim replacement in 2003, when he was pushed out. Lelyveld is the very opposite character of Raines—urbane, reserved, a little cool. Raines never names him, while referring to him as “an intensely traditional Timesman who would keep the news sections on automatic pilot.” According to Raines, the Times was a newspaper without “a pulse.”

You’d think there would be a little more deference. But Raines has often shown a bumptious attitude toward his elders. “He was the best, most gifted, most influential reporter on the staff” of the St. Pete Times, says Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute. “And he was always living in tension with the institutions that were forming and nurturing him.”

That’s a theme of his first novel. Brant Laster, the hero of Whiskey Man, twice faces down his father, B.B., in stunning ways, once calling him an “old man” in front of other men. I’d commented on that in Louisiana while Jeff was cleaning his boat at a car wash.

“It seemed like you must have had a lot of anger for your dad,” I said to Raines. “Did you write that novel about the time you were on the outs with him?”

No, the book was before that time, Raines answered. “I don’t see that as angry,” he said. “It was about the sociology of two southern generations . . . ”

On March 29, I drove out to Raines’s place in Pennsylvania. In between talking, I could watch his new dog, a German short-haired pointer called Pokey, get trained.

Raines and his wife live in a light-filled farmhouse on a hill in the Poconos. I got there in time for lunch. Krystyna had made chili and a tomato-and-mozzarella salad. She has a sweet, affectionate way with her husband. The marriage began in 2003 with a power-studded celebrity wedding reception at the Bryant Park Hotel with such a Gatsby-esque air of aspiration and triumph that some had predicted that the marriage wouldn’t survive Raines’s comedown. To use a Rainesism, that prediction is looking like “a pat hand” in poker. I saw Krystyna and Raines holding hands, nuzzling.


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