Because he had no careerist designs on editing, he soon resumed his correspondent’s life, returning to South Africa for a second tour. In 1986, Max Frankel became the paper’s executive editor, instituting what was widely seen as a reform administration after the long and tumultuous rule of Abe Rosenthal. Frankel brought Lelyveld back to New York as foreign editor. Thanks to the fresh success of Move Your Shadow, he figured he could afford to go off and write more books, which seemed an ideal life. But Lelyveld found he had come to care a great deal about the institution where he had spent more than 25 years.
In 1994, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper’s publisher, named Lelyveld executive editor—the most cerebral editor in recent memory, perhaps, but also a nearly accidental editor, so disinterested had he been in office politicking. It was true that his journalistic integrity was foremost, and pure; that he was actually a savvy manager and talent scout; and that he could turn practically pastoral when an employee ran into a family or medical problem. What was one to make, however, of his arsenal of blank stares, crooked smiles, and awkward silences? Those who knew him well knew what has been revealed in Omaha Blues: that Lelyveld’s public face was a more complex reaction than simple arrogance, that it was formed long ago in response to a distressingly sad family life.
Most people, however, didn’t know him so well. The role of executive editor is so powerful that the man who assumes it ceases to be seen as merely a man. And Lelyveld hardly helped his own cause. He was impatient with conventional wisdoms, and with convention in general. Junior Times employees learned to make last-second feints at the elevator so as to not be trapped into twenty seconds of Lelyveld’s halting silence. In the press, he gained an immovable image—a brilliant journalist, but a cold fish—and he was bothered less by that image than the fact that the excellence of the newspaper itself was treated as a secondary matter, if at all. “Joe ran a superb newsroom, and under him we produced a superb newspaper,” says Sulzberger. “Under him we entered into the digital age, we broke circulation barriers, advertising barriers, won a plethora of awards. It was Joe who assembled the talent that’s now driving the paper forward. He was a damn fine editor.”
Sulzberger and Lelyveld, each of whom has a country home near New Paltz, socialized regularly on the weekends; their wives were particularly close. As Lelyveld’s 65th birthday approached, it came time for him to advise Sulzberger on the choice of a successor. “Joe played the role of an honest broker,” Sulzberger recalls. “But I knew where he wanted to be—he would have chosen his deputy, Bill Keller.”
It was Lelyveld who turned Keller into an editor in the first place. Keller was a keenly talented correspondent in the Soviet Union and then in South Africa, where Lelyveld once visited him for two weeks to take his measure. In 1995, Lelyveld invited Keller to return to New York as foreign editor, and before long made him his deputy. The two men got along very well. Keller was twelve years younger than Lelyveld and more easygoing, but had a similar taste for journalistic rigor and cool decision-making. (The weirdest proof of their compatibility may have been that Keller’s mother came from Tekamah, Nebraska, the same town to which Lelyveld was exiled as a 6-year-old—although neither of them would realize the connection until Keller read Omaha Blues.)
It had taken a Howell Raines to make Joe Lelyveld lovable. The staff greeted him like a long-lost father.
Keller’s only significant rival to succeed Lelyveld was Howell Raines, who ran the Times’ editorial page and was as brazenly charismatic as Keller and Lelyveld were low-key. To close friends, Lelyveld sometimes revealed a distaste for Raines, particularly the bomb-throwing nature of his editorials. It seemed as if Raines thought the editorial page belonged to Howell Raines, not the New York Times, and Lelyveld feared he would bring the same approach—a blend of egotism and ideology—to the job of executive editor.
Still, as Keller recalls, “Joe went out of his way to not trash Howell to Arthur [Sulzberger]. He thought that his job was to be a scrupulous guide.”
What Lelyveld didn’t know was that Raines was, in fact, trashing him. It had never been customary to actually campaign for the role of executive editor, but Raines tried it. “His campaign theme was, ‘Joe has failed the paper, and I’m going to fix things,’ ” says one senior Times executive. “Actually, it was more insidious than that. It was, ‘I’m going to fix the paper, and it’s not going to cost you a penny.’ He pandered to the business side’s idea that the newsroom was a big leaking sieve.”
As Lelyveld’s sitting deputy, meanwhile, Keller was in no position to campaign for radical change even were he so inclined—which he wasn’t. Like Lelyveld, Keller saw the executive editor’s job as one of stewardship rather than revolution.
But Raines’s revolution campaign was more exciting. The unspoken promise was that he would at the very least bring a personality transplant to the job. If Lelyveld was hard to read and a hairsplitter of Talmudic intensity, Raines was as subtle as, well, a football coach. He regularly cited Bear Bryant as his management hero; the New York Times, Raines liked to claim, needed a “higher competitive metabolism.”
Few people were surprised when Sulzberger chose Raines and not Keller to succeed Lelyveld. But even as he entered his lame-duck period, Lelyveld was clueless that Raines had won the job in large part by attacking him. (Raines declined to be interviewed for this article.)