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Fishing With Howell


None of that humiliation and struggle is in Raines’s book. He describes the theater rebellion as the work of mediocre talents. The people in those seats, he writes, were by and large young and unconfident reporters, too swiftly promoted, “terrified” of failing at the Times star system. Or, as he said to me, they came out of a “professional culture where whining is considered viable behavior.”

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. When Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward got caught with the Janet Cooke story [a fabrication at the Washington Post in 1980], I heard Mrs. Graham said to others at the time, ‘We’re not going to let this crazy person break up what we’re building here.’ She could have easily made a different decision.”

It’s difficult to find anyone at the Times who thinks Sulzberger could have made a different decision.

Jonathan Landman, now a deputy managing editor, says the problem was grandiosity: “When he became executive editor, what developed very quickly, and this was the real tragedy, because this was a guy of such talent, intelligence, all kinds of ability—an interesting guy—but the pursuit of the prize and the personal meaning of it to him seemed to have taken over. The substance was gone.”

“The newsroom disliked Howell before Jayson Blair . . . He was a jerk, and he ran the institution for himself,” Berenson says.

Advocates for Raines point out that he brought excitement to the paper, and that the Times needed it. “He was hard-driving. That is what was wanted in an executive editor and that’s why he was chosen,” says Bill Safire. “He did what he later described as raise the metabolism.”

Kramon says he often sees evidence of Raines’s style in the paper to this day. “I have to give Howell credit. He made some gutsy changes, and we’re still benefiting from some of them.”

But his critics say that in many ways, the paper is still recovering from the Raines turmoil. That he set the paper’s process of change back two years. That worse than giving Jayson Blair freedom was his giving Judith Miller freedom, and Judith Miller put bad stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq on the front page that euchred a nation.

Landman, whose own career was burnished by the Blair debacle, still hasn’t let go of his anger at Raines. I pushed him to acknowledge Raines’s achievements.

“He did a terrific job in the way that people used photographs. It was an important change. His most lasting.”

Pokey came rambling in, followed by Krystyna. Raines’s face lit up.

“Hello, sweetie. How was your walk?”

“It was great. I was reinforcing the swimming lesson.”

“Oh, did he go in?”

“Oh, yes. Pecan pie?”

We asked her to wait a few minutes while we finished up talking about journalism. Raines believes in the greatness of journalism as a progressive force, in which reporters suppress their biases and bring out facts that help common people. But he says that the right (notably Rupert Murdoch) subverted the model. He doubts whether journalism can meet the challenges of a society dominated by big business if it lacks professional tools.

“Can’t journalism still be a progressive force with more active biases in its production?” I asked.

Raines sighed. “I leave that for the next generation to figure out. I’m on another journey now.”

It was a graceful note. We went into the kitchen, where his wife was reading the Times—“Who died today?” he asked. Then we went outside to the new barbecue area with mugs of tea and pieces of pecan pie. It was a gorgeous spring day. Raines played with Pokey and told me another great political story, about LBJ’s failed effort to dam the nearby Delaware. He pointed out the slumped apple tree and told me how he’d hauled it straight with his truck after a storm. It was a hopeful story. There are times that Raines doesn’t sound like Lear, bewildered by his dispossession. Yes, he’s still caught up in the tragedy, and there are still bodies lying around the stage, but he’s only 63. He’ll get a couple more acts. He really is a writer, with a writer’s transformative vision, the mind-lock of self and material that was so inappropriate to editorship and so essential to, say, a great Civil War novel.

Then Raines said he hadn’t shown me the pictures for his new book. As we walked back to the house, I reminded him of a joke he had made on his son’s boat in Louisiana when I had taken his picture. “That’s one thing I hardly have any of,” he’d said, “fish pictures—and it’s always the same photograph!” He had held out his hands pretending to hold a fish. It’s a good thing to hear a man laugh at himself.


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