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Fishing With Howell

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She showed me around the house. It has wide country wainscoting painted gray and new slate countertops and the inevitable Sub-Zero. There are few fish pictures anywhere on the walls, but there is a discreet framed collection of arrowheads Raines collected as a boy in Alabama. The master bedroom is dominated by a huge scoop-shaped bathtub on its own oak-floored platform, sans walls or tiling, a few feet from the bed.

I’d noticed a box from Cabela’s, an outdoor-gear store, outside the front door. Raines sawed it open hungrily in the kitchen. Two boxes of chartreuse jig heads for panfish. Raines’s brother was visiting for a month, and they’d use them in the Delaware River. One great thing about leaving the Times, he said, was all the time he’s had to go fishing.

Raines sat beside the massive stone fireplace and talked for a couple of hours about writing and politics. His book’s theme is that because of the loss of the Times job, he got his first love back, writing books. There’s no question that he leads a real literary life. He forages in history and The New York Review of Books. He quotes Vonnegut on plot and Hemingway on economy. He knows what Faulkner’s body looked like, also Zane Grey’s harem. He studies Lincoln’s temperament, and his hill-country ancestors, for his next book, a Civil War novel set in Alabama. His keen sense of character makes his political stories come alive.

“During Bush’s campaign for his first term, I invited him to come meet with the editorial board and the senior news-department editors and the publisher in the Times boardroom. And we kept getting put off, kept getting put off. I have a friend named Stuart Stevens who was working in the Bush campaign, mid-high-level. I said, ‘Stuart, this needs to happen, not just because we want it to, but because it’s part of the festival of democracy, that the presidential candidate comes to the Times, and even though he is not supported by the paper editorially, he is treated with the respect that a nominee of the party is entitled to.’

“So Stuart—I don’t know what he did, but weeks go by, then the word comes down that Bush is coming, and he does, and he comes and he goes around the table, there are probably 25 people, and he says something personal to each person in the room. ‘Oh, you’re the one . . . ’ or ‘I’ve heard you have a daughter at University of Texas.’ Almost every person, there was something, or he had read something. He gets to me, and he shakes my hand, and he leans in confidentially, and he said, ‘Thank you for putting this meeting together.’ As if I had done him a great service, when in fact they had been resisting it with every means possible for months.

“What I subsequently found out is that despite this characterization of him as the laid-back guy who gives everybody nicknames, he had spent a long time on the telephone the previous night with his friend who runs Chelsea Piers [Roland Betts], who was with him at Yale and who was his most important backer in New York. They had asked us for a list of people who would be there. For security and other reasons, and he had gone over this list with this guy. That tells you several things. One, I was impressed by his memory. It told me that there was an element of calculation there that was completely different from the casual-Texan persona we were asked to believe in. And I saw him later, after he was elected. Katharine Graham gave a dinner party, and he and I spoke, and he remembered that visit. I said, ‘We enjoyed the discussion . . . we hope you’ll come back,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you know, boy—that was really tough.’ Meaning, those tough, smart guys at the Times really grilled me, really stressed me. When in fact he had moved through it quite easily . . . I interpret that as having a pretty good native political sense.”

During the Clinton years, a story went around that Raines was tough on Clinton because he was jealous. Two political charmers from the New South, but Clinton was younger and had gotten further.

Raines said I had it wrong.

“The line was I was jealous of Clinton not because he was president but because he had been able to build his career and become a success without having to leave home, whereas I had had to leave the South and scramble and scratch to get into a prominent position. And I remember when this was presented to me, I just said, ‘This is amazing. I’ve lived in Atlanta, I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in New York, and I’m supposed to be jealous of a man who had to spend 25 years in Little Rock—?’ ”


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