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Fishing With Howell


Then Raines made Grey Goose martinis, dribbling in just a couple of drops of vermouth, and we sat out by the barbecue pit with Krystyna. We went out to dinner, and Raines ordered wine. Talking about poets—Auden, Larkin, Yeats—he was also drinking me under the table.

The next morning, Raines picked me up in his black Toyota Tundra. Krystyna and Pokey were in the crew cab. Krystyna had a quilted red designer jacket on, Pokey an orange rope. We went to a friend’s pond nearby, where Matt Fetter was waiting by his truck to give Pokey his hunting lesson. The first part of the training was retrieving. Fetter hurled a dummy shaped like a duck 25 feet into the pond. Pokey, who had already been in and out of the water, stood quivering and trembling on the bank.

“Go get it,” Fetter kept saying. “Go get it.”

The handsome dog mewled and shook like crazy but moved not a limb. The three of us on the bank echoed Fetter’s goading in our hearts: “Go get it, Pokey!”

Finally, Fetter got Pokey to go in by using real duck scent and throwing a stick out by the float. The dog brought the dummy back. Fetter called out, “Good boy, good bird,” again and again, congratulating the dog.

We started around the pond to do scenting training. Raines moved to the trainer’s side.

“His initial reluctance on the dummy, was that because the water made him cold?”

“No, because of lack of confidence,” Fetter said.

Raines nodded, but Pokey’s failure seemed to make him a little sour.

That afternoon, we sat by the massive stone fireplace, and it was time to ask about the Times.

Raines writes in the book that he was trying to save the Times with drastic but necessary changes—revolutionary ideas. Early in his newspapering career, he writes, “I began forming the ideas that would one day get me fired.” After the Times won seven Pulitzer Prizes for 2001, he had the political capital to take on “one after another those creaky, dust-covered sections that were supposed to tell our readers about culture, travel, sports, books, the life of the mind.” This was such heroic work, Raines says, that for once he did not regret giving up his first love, his literary career. The Times was a crucial democratic institution. Yet it was a dying lake. He was going to reverse that process. No wonder the lifers resented him.

They got their chance to turn the tables during the Jayson Blair scandal.

The six weeks from the first charge of plagiarism on April 28, 2003, to Raines’s firing on June 5 are surely among the most awful in the history of the paper. That first accusation against Blair, a young black reporter, soon led to an investigation of scores of other articles he had made up or stolen. His fraud seemed to pervade the most important newsroom in the country. It became a national scandal, on magazine covers and the nightly news.

In his book, Raines places the blame squarely on Blair. Noting his son Ben’s question about whether Blair was a dwarf—he is said to be five feet tall—Raines wrote, “My career had been hit by a plummeting dwarf, falling straight and fast and nothing is likely to survive that.” There are also several references to “Little Jayson Blair.”

“You seem angry at him,” I said, trying to draw out his emotion.

“No.” Raines said he pitied Blair. “I would never try to disown anger as an emotion. What I was trying to use that language for was to show some distance and some understanding, as well as obviously the initial anger that I and everyone at the Times felt, that this guy had betrayed the most fundamental compact of our profession.”

“You don’t mention Lelyveld by name. Why not?”

“No need to.”

In the Kremlinology of the book, unnamed, but identified in other ways, are two reporters he calls among the smartest at the paper: Adam Liptak and David Barstow. They were two of Raines’s favorites, put in the terrible position of helping to prepare the Times’ long investigative piece about the Blair scandal that ran May 11. Raines judged the story to be fatal to his career, as it offered a theory of the Blair case that Raines and his top aides should have paid more attention six months before, when prosecutors in the Washington-area sniper case angrily questioned a Blair “scoop” in the story.

“Are you angry at Liptak?”

“No. Whether or not I’m referring to Adam, or whoever I’m referring to, is not germane to a memoir, which is my experience in a situation. One thing I wanted to do in this book was not for it to be about hugging my friends and sticking my finger in the eyes of people I didn’t like. And in fact, I have a pretty high regard for just about everybody involved at the Times in that period.”


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