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The United States of America vs. Bill Keller

Keller remained in Moscow until 1992, then took over as the Times’ Johannesburg bureau chief to cover the collapse of apartheid. That same year, he and Cooper adopted a Russian child, Tom. Two years later, Lelyveld traveled to South Africa—where he was once bureau chief ­himself— to sound out Keller about becoming an editor. The two barely knew each other, having met once in Moscow and for lunch another time in London. “He was one of our stars, and I wanted to see if he had any interest,” says Lelyveld, who agreed to be interviewed only about his recruitment of Keller. The two took a road trip together through the Eastern Cape province, “and I kind of orated on the satisfactions of editing and how I hadn’t thought of it myself until late in the game and he should ­really think about it,” Lelyveld says. “He was completely cold and unresponsive to it.”

The following year, Lelyveld wrote him a letter asking if he’d like to talk about the foreign-editor job. “To my amazement, we didn’t even meet, he accepted the job.”

Keller now describes his rationale for suddenly changing his mind as uncomplicated—foreign editor is a prestigious post, and what could you do after covering the fall of communism and apartheid, anyway?

Moving to New York, Keller wrote one last piece on South Africa, an article for the Times Magazine about Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie, in which he cited a book called The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela. The following week, the magazine published a letter by the book’s author.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Keller’s article “The Anti-Mandela” (May 14) and am glad he found my biography of Winnie Mandela useful. I agree with him that the phrase “a blistering inferno of racial hatred,” used to describe her childhood, is an overwrought one. However, credit where credit is due. It is not my phrase, it is Winnie’s own.
— Emma Gilbey, Sag Harbor, L.I.

After reading the letter, Keller called Gilbey, a British journalist living in New York, and asked her to coffee at the Times cafeteria. Gilbey, at the time, had a reputation as something of a power-dater; her exes included Senator John Kerry and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. An affair ensued, which shocked Keller’s friends. “I felt bad for everyone involved,” says Stephen Engelberg, a former Times reporter. “This was not characteristic behavior at all. I wouldn’t pretend to be Bill’s psychologist, but he didn’t get a red sports car, so …”

Emma Gilbey and Bill Keller on their wedding day, 1998.  

Gilbey offers another explanation, related to Keller’s son. “After he fell in love with Tom, he was just falling in love all over the place—with chairs and tables—and when he fell in love with me he didn’t know whether this was actually real or whether he actually loved me or was in love with the world. And, so, you know, we sort of thank Tom.”

Two years after they met, Gilbey was pregnant, Keller was divorced from Cooper, and he had a new job as managing editor under Joe Lelyveld.

On a morning in late July, Keller met me at La Guardia airport to catch a shuttle flight to Washington, D.C., where he was to visit the paper’s bureau. Among a crowd of executives drinking coffee and perusing the newspapers, Keller was barely noticed—except by women. With his square jaw, patrician nose, and crinkly eyes, he has the look of a handsome doctor on a soap opera. Onboard the plane, an attractive older woman gazed across the aisle at him while her husband punched e-mail messages on his Treo. Keller didn’t seem to notice.

“You asked once before whether I considered myself ambitious,” he told me, “and I don’t in the sense that I really aspired to the jobs that I got. But I am competitive.”

Keller’s wife says he’s got a bigger ego than he lets on, suggesting his ostentatious humility is a costume. She calls him an “alpha male in disguise.”

The alpha-beta question is at the heart of any evaluation of Keller’s tenure as executive editor. He was, after all, hired to be a kind of institutional nurturer, which turned out to be an untenable role. It took him ten months to even address the question of whether the paper needed to make amends for Judith Miller’s discredited stories on Iraq’s illusory weapons of mass destruction, which had been published under Raines. By that time, it was clear that Miller had, at best, been led astray by unreliable sources and that there were serious problems with her reporting. At that point, Keller gathered his top lieutenants, including Managing Editor Jill Abramson, and asked them how far the paper ought to go in investigating those stories. The consensus that emerged was that the paper should not pursue an internal review on the scale of what had been done following Jayson Blair because it would be too damaging for a newsroom still recovering from that scandal. Keller, who was inclined to make recovery his top priority, agreed.