He got his first big hint when Raines was shown a typographical redesign of the front page that Lelyveld had been planning for months. The redesign was presented to Raines as a courtesy; Lelyveld was still running the paper. But Raines demanded that it be halted. “Howell’s scrapping of it seemed completely gratuitous,” recalls Keller. “I don’t think it had anything to do with Howell disagreeing with what the type should be.”
Lelyveld was stunned and, according to friends, livid; he thought about walking out then and there. Worse yet, Raines was by now unleashing his campaign on the rest of the newspaper. “He took the sports department out to lunch before he took over, after he was named, and spent most of the time pissing on Lelyveld and everything that came before him,” says Robert Lipsyte, who was then a sports columnist at the paper.
Instead of being gracefully and gratefully retired, as even his critics likely felt he deserved, Lelyveld suddenly found himself a Typhoid Mary at the same newspaper where he had enjoyed nearly inconceivable success—at the same newspaper that he was still running. According to friends, he was infuriated, embarrassed, and stung by a betrayal that ran all the way up to Arthur Sulzberger’s office. “He clearly felt that Arthur had, at the very least, been suckered by Howell,” says one friend, “and that he sat and listened to all this stuff Howell said about Joe’s tenure and hadn’t objected or stuck up for him.”
All this, and his wife was sick with cancer as well. These were the circumstances under which Joe Lelyveld stumbled into retirement, just a few days before the September 11 attacks, the circumstances under which he took out his parents’ letters and began work on Omaha Blues.
But after barely eighteen months, with Lelyveld halfway through the book, the circumstances had changed spectacularly. Howell Raines’s charisma and swagger and self-surety—all the things that set him apart from Lelyveld, and had played so well in campaign mode—proved disastrous in their implementation. He had jacked up the paper’s metabolism so much that it began to devour itself. Several prominent writers and editors quit out of disgust with Raines’s demands and seeming disregard for the Times’ tradition of moderation. At the same time, a young reporter named Jayson Blair was writing a series of articles full of fraud and plagiarism. Under ordinary circumstances, Blair might have been seen as little more than a rogue incompetent. But given the growing hostility toward Raines, his crimes were interpreted as a systemic error. Mutiny bloomed in the newsroom, and before long, Sulzberger got the message and ousted Raines.
“If Howell really had been the coach of a football team,” says Lipsyte, “he would have been successful, because jocks are basically sissies and they roll over for alpha males. But what he had was a bunch of nerds, and nerds take it and take it and take it and then show up in the cafeteria with an AK-47. And that’s what happened at the Times.”
Sulzberger promptly contacted Lelyveld. “I wanted two things from him,” Sulzberger recalls. “To help me steady the newsroom and to find his successor.” He says that Lelyveld was initially reluctant to return, “but he did it as a favor to me and also because he loves the institution.”
A friend of Lelyveld’s calls the reluctance “a little bit of an act”—a means of letting Sulzberger suffer, if only a few hours longer, the consequence of his having chosen Raines in the first place. When Lelyveld returned as acting editor, he could not have been more decorous: “This is not a restoration in any personal sense,” he told the assembled staff. “But I hope it’s a restoration of certain values we need to go on putting out the world’s best newspaper. I don’t mean that as a slight on the two admirable men”—Raines and his deputy, Gerald Boyd—“who led you day after relentless day through the titanic story of 9/11 and then bravely stood here yesterday to say their good-byes for the good of the paper.”
It had taken a Howell Raines to make Joe Lelyveld lovable. The staff greeted him like a long-lost father. One of his first initiatives was to reinstate the typographical redesign that Raines had thwarted. He then addressed his other big piece of unfinished business: seeing to it that Sulzberger named Bill Keller to succeed him.
Lelyveld would later admit to friends that he may have taken a bit too much satisfaction in the unexpected reversal of his Times legacy. It is hard to say whether he truly felt this or if, in true Lelyveld fashion, he was merely subjecting himself to the self-flagellation and guilt he so adeptly imported from his childhood. Lelyveld seems resigned to the belief that the things in life most in need of change are the ones most resistant to change. When the journalist Seth Mnookin, working on a book about the Times during the Raines fiasco, contacted Lelyveld for an interview, Lelyveld turned down Mnookin’s request in an e-mail: “Let’s leave things where they stand—I’m the shy, aloof, arrogant, dull, sometimes scheming, status-quo guy who didn’t want to reform or energize the Gray Lady.”
His wife’s death, less than a year after he left the Times for good, tore a chunk out of him. They had been married nearly 45 years. Carolyn had over the years done astonishingly good work with children suffering from AIDS and cancer; she was also Lelyveld’s social half, his normalizing half, his abundant half. After the peripatetic life of a correspondent and the on-call life of an editor, he had been very much looking forward to his retirement years with Carolyn. In anticipation, they were building a huge extension on their nineteenth-century farmhouse upstate. It was designed by their daughter Amy, an architect in New York. (Their other daughter, Nita, is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.)
One day last month, I spent a few hours in the house with Lelyveld. The old half, with low ceilings and uneven floors, was cluttered and cozy; the new half, with soaring ceilings and a wall of windows looking onto a hardwood glen, was grandly serene. The new master bedroom had a second-story porch attached to it, floating in the air like a tree house. “The idea,” he said, almost inaudibly, “was that I would have made coffee in the morning and brought it out here to Carolyn.”
Later, driving into New Paltz, I asked if he would consider remarrying.
“I don’t have a position on that,” he said. I couldn’t help smiling—it was the sort of nonanswer that would have made Lelyveld the reporter seethe. He may have felt the same, for a minute later, he produced an explanation more in keeping with the writer he is: “I’m not happy being alone all day, all night, all the next day, and all the next night.”
He is working hard to reclaim his writer’s life. He has a notebook full of ideas for books and magazine articles, and Omaha Blues is the biggest step yet toward his most important goal: establishing his identity beyond the New York Times. That is why he won’t publicly discuss the latter years of his career, and particularly the turbulence provoked by Howell Raines.
Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t drop an occasional hint. During one conversation, I referred to the period when Lelyveld “came back to rescue the paper,” but then stopped myself and said, “Well, maybe rescue is too strong a word.”
Lelyveld’s half-smile spread to perhaps three-quarters. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I think I can live with rescue.”