Unfortunately for Sulzberger, he can’t get at the root of this mess the way he did the previous one, by firing Howell Raines. It was Raines whose good intentions as executive editor (affirmative action, balls-out aggressiveness) enabled Blair to scam the paper as successfully as he did. And it was Raines, as Miller’s boss from 9/11 through the Iraqi Mission Accomplished moment, who enabled and encouraged her scoop-crazy excesses. As someone at the Times who has never disliked Raines or Miller explained it to me, “Howell untied her leash.”
The present crisis is an extension of the first crisis in another way as well. Blair resigned on May 1, 2003; Raines left on June 5, and it wasn’t until July that Keller succeeded him. One of Miller’s handlers, the investigations editor, had left the Times; another nominal boss, Abramson, then the Washington bureau chief, was at the center of the uprising against Raines. In other words, during the very period when free-ranging Judy Miller desperately needed adult supervision—when she was publishing another half-dozen exciting stories about the discovery of Iraqi WMDs, when she was having all her conversations with Libby et al. about Plame and Wilson—her senior management was entirely consumed by the Raines-Blair horror show.
The symmetry of Plamegate’s simultaneous damage to both lobes of the Establishment has a novelistic irony—the neoconservative Bush administration and the flagship of old-line liberalism are suffering disproportionately from the same, fundamentally trivial piece of Washington business-as-usual. What’s more, Arthur Sulzberger is sort of the George W. Bush of media. Both are the preppy baby-boom sons of distinguished, understated preppy fathers, Punch and Poppy, from whom they inherited their given names and positions of power. Both are big outdoor-exercise buffs, both are insecure but cocky, both have a bratty streak, both are prone to inappropriate jocularity. And each presides from within an insular management bubble.
Bush is also steadfastly loyal; if he won’t fire Donald Rumsfeld or (until they’re indicted) Rove or Libby, it’s a very good bet he’ll stick by his sorry pal Harriet Miers. Sulzberger seems slipperier, yuppier. Until the moment he told Raines to put on his Panama hat and get out, he supported him 100 percent. So even though he treated her to a massage and manicure and martini the night she left jail, we shouldn’t be surprised when his unwavering support of his sorry pal Judy Miller suddenly . . . ends.
This time, however, if he were determined once again to get rid of the most responsible senior executive, it would have to be the guy who hired Raines and encouraged his booyah, hoo-ha, no-brakes style. Whose tacit personal imprimatur Miller has always exploited. Who went way beyond the call of duty in casting a problematic reporter as the embodiment of press freedom. Who let Miller’s highly subjective readings of Libby’s legal scheming drive the legal strategy of the world’s greatest newspaper.
But Sulzberger is not going to fire himself. Indeed, he affects a kind of la-di-dah disregard for the whole horrible bungle. If Miller and the Times were going to cut a deal with the prosecutor in the end anyway, why didn’t they do it a year ago and spare their colleagues and the company and government all the agita and expense? “Maybe a deal was possible earlier. If so,” he says, with one excuuuuuse-me shrug trashing his argument that it had been all about defending a crystal-clear principle, “shame on us.”