Fishing With Howell

Photo: Jeff Riedel

Howell Raines told me to come meet him in New Orleans and we’d go fishing in the bayous with his son. We could hit some good restaurants and tour the damage, and then he would give me the galley of his new memoir, The One That Got Away. Later, when we both returned north, we could have the serious conversations.

One afternoon in late March, I checked into Raines’s hotel in the French Quarter, a beautiful restored building called the Soniat House, and at 5:30 I met him downstairs. He hunted the honor bar for Jack Daniel’s, but there was none, so we had vodka. Raines, 63, is a small, thickset man with a very large presence and a hickory-cured voice. We sat in the courtyard near an orange tree and talked about writing and the South. We didn’t talk about the New York Times. Three years ago this June, Raines was forced out as executive editor in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. He’d held the top job for less than two years. But Raines’s publisher had told me that his new book was not about the Times; it was about fishing and coming to his real calling, being a writer.

After a few minutes, we were joined by Raines’s wife, Krystyna, a slender and striking woman many years his junior, wearing a fine Oriental-style dress, and she drove as we went uptown to dinner with Raines’s son and friends. It was a big party, but I stuck at Raines’s elbow, and he seemed to like that. He is gregarious, but he’s not a joker. His charm is focused.

We got going the next morning at five. We fished all day in the bayous without success. Raines seemed disappointed that he had not gotten one, but the landscape was stunning and it was interesting to watch him with his son. He and Jeff, the guitarist for a funk band called Galactic, have an easygoing but formal relationship. There wasn’t much cursing in the boat, no goofiness.

They were respectful with one another, as Jeff poled his father around toward good spots. “Oh, man, we just spooked a big one … See him boiling? … Don’t worry, there’s more in here for sure … That was a jack crevalle … Bless your heart, Dad.”

Jeff was loyal. He mentioned that he doesn’t read the Times anymore (though his father does). And when I asked him to describe his father’s fishing technique, he said, “Tenacious. He’s got a beautiful cast. He’s studied the mechanics more than me or my brother and can accomplish more with less effort. He gets a lot of line out with little motion.”

Then Jeff got out sandwiches and Raines talked politics. People have called him charismatic and spellbinding. I saw that on the boat as he talked about political character.

“Ronald Reagan is the most mysterious politician in our experience. You know, Clark Clifford called him an amiable dunce. And Clark Clifford winds up being indicted for bank fraud, and Ronald Reagan ends the Cold War. But at the deepest level—family or political level—Reagan was unknowable.

“I wonder, was Reagan’s decision to up the ante in the arms race intuitive or reasoned? You know, one of Reagan’s secrets, the rubber-chicken dinners people go to because of civic obligation, and we [reporters] go to of necessity—well, Reagan loved them. He was having a great time. And I’m told he liked bawdy jokes. There was a press reception when he was running for president, in a social setting, and he was asked what his physical regime was, and he said, with a wink, ‘I do everything a younger man does.’ It was a guy joke, delivered very cleverly and disarmingly.

“Now I better stop talking. I’ve had two beers. I think I’m going to catch a fish.”

The next day was all politics. Driving around the Lower Ninth Ward, viewing the devastation and the fact that only college kids in white hazmat suits were doing anything, Raines got worked up. He used history to throw a light on what we were seeing. He spoke about the racism that went on in the flood of ’27. He talked about what FDR and LBJ would do with the problem.

“Think what Eisenhower would have done with this! You have to entertain the possibility that Bush can’t think his way through problems like this. Here’s a family that has had every benefit that American society can offer for four generations—wealth, education, social position—and they have no impulse toward repaying anything back to this society that has been so generous to them. Faulkner talks about the human heart in conflict. Well, I see no evidence of conflict in their hearts. Just meanness.”

Howell Raines with his dog, Pokey, near his house in Pennsylvania.Photo: Jeff Riedel

Raines about ran into another car, and Jeff said, “Watch it, Dad.”

Hearing Raines’s riffs left the feeling that here was a great engine up on the blocks. Why wasn’t he still running the Times?

Back at Jeff’s house, a little thing happened. A guy who had been displaced by the hurricane had moved in across the street, and he was outside, sorting through stuff in his pickup. He wanted to talk, tell us his sad story. I lingered in the street to talk to him for a minute, but Raines was impatient to get inside, and I felt rude either way. Here was a real-life victim, he didn’t care. Then Raines saw I was interested in the guy and he came back into the street. “Well, you know what they say. We say we want justice when all we really need is mercy,” he said. Then everyone smiled politely and we went inside.

At Jeff’s house, Raines gave me the book galley with instructions not to share it. As soon as I got on my plane, I cracked it open.

Scribner had said that Raines had said all he had to say about the Times in a critical Atlantic magazine piece in 2004. The One That Got Away was mostly about fishing and writing, and included a majestic narrative of Raines’s battle with a marlin in the South Pacific. There was a folksy humor too. At one point, Raines imagines God chiding him: “Listen, through a happenstance that even I do not fully understand, you have wound up as Editorial Page Editor of the New York Times. Next time I’ll be more careful.”

But toward the end, the book felt like a fish costume on a different book. It told a story about the Times that was a lot like the article two years back: how Raines the crusading journalist had tried to shake up a dust-covered institution that was dying, its circulation flat, but the bureaucrats had risen up against him.

Raines was born in 1943, the son of a successful manufacturer of department-store fixtures in Birmingham, Alabama, and as a young man dreamed of becoming a novelist à la William Faulkner. But when he went to graduate school in Tuscaloosa, he discovered that the life of the belletrist was too unengaged. He needed action and experience. Having dabbled in newsrooms, he came to understand that he craved the rush of news. So in his mid-twenties, he threw himself into what he calls his second love, journalism.

Things came easily to him. He was charming and smart; he and his first wife, Susan Woodley, a photographer, made an attractive couple. He was a natural writer, and he understood politics. Not just electoral politics but the newsroom variety. And the righteousness of his personal ambition was married to a righteous cause: the civil-rights movement.

“From the beginning, he was the sort of Southerner I trusted. Very blunt-spoken and very direct, but also very modern,” says Eugene Patterson, the former editor of the St. Petersburg Times. “He was not a throwback to the old Dixie. He was a reader and a thinker, especially on race issues. A person with impatience and revolt against the southern attitude that had hold of the South, the old Dixie bubba thing … Howell was one of the strong men down here.”

Patterson says that when he got calls from politician friends complaining, he could see Raines watching him steely-eyed at his desk to see if he buckled.

Raines was the best hire Patterson ever made, but after two years, Raines was gone. More than anything, he was ambitious. In 1977, at 34, he simultaneously published two splendid books, a novel called Whiskey Man, about Depression-era Alabama, and an oral history of the civil-rights movement called My Soul Is Rested. He had worked out the last literary problems in the novel on a legal pad in the back of a plane—after one Beefeater martini and before several more—flying east and still high from seeing Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in the ’76 California primary. With some shrewdness, he had then played the publishers, not letting either one know the books were coming out simultaneously. The bang-bang publication was a careerist coup. Patterson says that Times executive editor A. M. Rosenthal saw the books and asked, “Who is this guy?”

Raines’s ascent at the Times began in the Atlanta bureau. The Times had a tradition of promoting Southerners, and Raines wasn’t above playing that card with humorous colloquialisms. At first, the Times’ rigid deadlines got to him. “I was anxious in a way I didn’t like. Then I said, ‘They can’t hang me, they can’t make my family quit loving me if I don’t make it,’ ” and he got over it. He was courtly and engaging and high-minded. He had presence. He was an instinctual writer and storyteller. It came from his hillbilly roots: Scotch-Irish men who sang and fiddled and drank all night in the road. Soon they were using Raines leads in the Times stylebook.

Raines with son Ben on Darky Lake, Quetico Provinvial Park, Ontario, Canada, in 1993.Photo: Patrick Tyler/Courtesy of Scribner

Raines found himself more interested in power than in writing. Within seven years, he had left writing to become deputy Washington editor and thereby take part in the great game of the Times: executive competition. A couple of years later, Times executive editor Max Frankel chose Joe Lelyveld as foreign editor, and then Frankel had to fly to Washington to “persuade an obviously hurt, passed-over” Raines to take Lelyveld’s former job as London bureau chief and broaden his skills.

That’s a story from Frankel’s autobiography, not from Raines. If Raines had everything, one thing he did not have was comfort with his dark emotions. He held hurts in. When he differed with his father and older brother over the sale of family land in Florida, his way was not to quarrel or have it out but not to speak to his brother, and only occasionally to his father, for several years, till he got past the feelings and things went smooth again. Raines was similarly repressed when it came to defeats at work. In 1993, he published a best-selling memoir, Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, that spoke movingly of “the black dog” of depression that comes to men’s lives in their forties or fifties, after disappointments. The problem for the reader who wants to sympathize was that Raines didn’t really tell where it hurts. The end of his long marriage, for instance, took place in a curt sentence or two: They’d stopped getting along.

The most confessional aspect of Raines’s new book is its descriptions of his move up the ladder. Times editors are usually closemouthed about this stuff. But Raines shows himself courting Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in the nineties to get a crack at the executive editorship when it opened up in 2001. Raines again put his heart’s first calling—writing books—on hold in order to serve Sulzberger as editorial-page editor and scheme to be pope. It was worth the “six-year wait,” he says.

“If passed over, I would bail out of the Times immediately to try to make up for the lost years of my writing career.”

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.”

People I knew at the Times had described that courtship satirically. How Raines wore red suspenders and gold-toed socks like Arthur and slipped off his shoes to put his feet up on the desk as he cultivated to a fare-thee-well. How Arthur, the scion famous for being tentative and callow, seemed to glow when Raines’s confidence was projected on him.

The One That Got Away is kind to Sulzberger, describing him as highly intelligent despite his insecurities. It is much harder on Lelyveld, Raines’s predecessor as executive editor, and his interim replacement in 2003, when he was pushed out. Lelyveld is the very opposite character of Raines—urbane, reserved, a little cool. Raines never names him, while referring to him as “an intensely traditional Timesman who would keep the news sections on automatic pilot.” According to Raines, the Times was a newspaper without “a pulse.”

You’d think there would be a little more deference. But Raines has often shown a bumptious attitude toward his elders. “He was the best, most gifted, most influential reporter on the staff” of the St. Pete Times, says Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute. “And he was always living in tension with the institutions that were forming and nurturing him.”

That’s a theme of his first novel. Brant Laster, the hero of Whiskey Man, twice faces down his father, B.B., in stunning ways, once calling him an “old man” in front of other men. I’d commented on that in Louisiana while Jeff was cleaning his boat at a car wash.

“It seemed like you must have had a lot of anger for your dad,” I said to Raines. “Did you write that novel about the time you were on the outs with him?”

No, the book was before that time, Raines answered. “I don’t see that as angry,” he said. “It was about the sociology of two southern generations … ”

On March 29, I drove out to Raines’s place in Pennsylvania. In between talking, I could watch his new dog, a German short-haired pointer called Pokey, get trained.

Raines and his wife live in a light-filled farmhouse on a hill in the Poconos. I got there in time for lunch. Krystyna had made chili and a tomato-and-mozzarella salad. She has a sweet, affectionate way with her husband. The marriage began in 2003 with a power-studded celebrity wedding reception at the Bryant Park Hotel with such a Gatsby-esque air of aspiration and triumph that some had predicted that the marriage wouldn’t survive Raines’s comedown. To use a Rainesism, that prediction is looking like “a pat hand” in poker. I saw Krystyna and Raines holding hands, nuzzling.

She showed me around the house. It has wide country wainscoting painted gray and new slate countertops and the inevitable Sub-Zero. There are few fish pictures anywhere on the walls, but there is a discreet framed collection of arrowheads Raines collected as a boy in Alabama. The master bedroom is dominated by a huge scoop-shaped bathtub on its own oak-floored platform, sans walls or tiling, a few feet from the bed.

I’d noticed a box from Cabela’s, an outdoor-gear store, outside the front door. Raines sawed it open hungrily in the kitchen. Two boxes of chartreuse jig heads for panfish. Raines’s brother was visiting for a month, and they’d use them in the Delaware River. One great thing about leaving the Times, he said, was all the time he’s had to go fishing.

Raines sat beside the massive stone fireplace and talked for a couple of hours about writing and politics. His book’s theme is that because of the loss of the Times job, he got his first love back, writing books. There’s no question that he leads a real literary life. He forages in history and The New York Review of Books. He quotes Vonnegut on plot and Hemingway on economy. He knows what Faulkner’s body looked like, also Zane Grey’s harem. He studies Lincoln’s temperament, and his hill-country ancestors, for his next book, a Civil War novel set in Alabama. His keen sense of character makes his political stories come alive.

“During Bush’s campaign for his first term, I invited him to come meet with the editorial board and the senior news-department editors and the publisher in the Times boardroom. And we kept getting put off, kept getting put off. I have a friend named Stuart Stevens who was working in the Bush campaign, mid-high-level. I said, ‘Stuart, this needs to happen, not just because we want it to, but because it’s part of the festival of democracy, that the presidential candidate comes to the Times, and even though he is not supported by the paper editorially, he is treated with the respect that a nominee of the party is entitled to.’

“So Stuart—I don’t know what he did, but weeks go by, then the word comes down that Bush is coming, and he does, and he comes and he goes around the table, there are probably 25 people, and he says something personal to each person in the room. ‘Oh, you’re the one … ’ or ‘I’ve heard you have a daughter at University of Texas.’ Almost every person, there was something, or he had read something. He gets to me, and he shakes my hand, and he leans in confidentially, and he said, ‘Thank you for putting this meeting together.’ As if I had done him a great service, when in fact they had been resisting it with every means possible for months.

“What I subsequently found out is that despite this characterization of him as the laid-back guy who gives everybody nicknames, he had spent a long time on the telephone the previous night with his friend who runs Chelsea Piers [Roland Betts], who was with him at Yale and who was his most important backer in New York. They had asked us for a list of people who would be there. For security and other reasons, and he had gone over this list with this guy. That tells you several things. One, I was impressed by his memory. It told me that there was an element of calculation there that was completely different from the casual-Texan persona we were asked to believe in. And I saw him later, after he was elected. Katharine Graham gave a dinner party, and he and I spoke, and he remembered that visit. I said, ‘We enjoyed the discussion … we hope you’ll come back,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you know, boy—that was really tough.’ Meaning, those tough, smart guys at the Times really grilled me, really stressed me. When in fact he had moved through it quite easily … I interpret that as having a pretty good native political sense.”

During the Clinton years, a story went around that Raines was tough on Clinton because he was jealous. Two political charmers from the New South, but Clinton was younger and had gotten further.

Raines said I had it wrong.

“The line was I was jealous of Clinton not because he was president but because he had been able to build his career and become a success without having to leave home, whereas I had had to leave the South and scramble and scratch to get into a prominent position. And I remember when this was presented to me, I just said, ‘This is amazing. I’ve lived in Atlanta, I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in New York, and I’m supposed to be jealous of a man who had to spend 25 years in Little Rock—?’ ”

Then Raines made Grey Goose martinis, dribbling in just a couple of drops of vermouth, and we sat out by the barbecue pit with Krystyna. We went out to dinner, and Raines ordered wine. Talking about poets—Auden, Larkin, Yeats—he was also drinking me under the table.

The next morning, Raines picked me up in his black Toyota Tundra. Krystyna and Pokey were in the crew cab. Krystyna had a quilted red designer jacket on, Pokey an orange rope. We went to a friend’s pond nearby, where Matt Fetter was waiting by his truck to give Pokey his hunting lesson. The first part of the training was retrieving. Fetter hurled a dummy shaped like a duck 25 feet into the pond. Pokey, who had already been in and out of the water, stood quivering and trembling on the bank.

“Go get it,” Fetter kept saying. “Go get it.”

The handsome dog mewled and shook like crazy but moved not a limb. The three of us on the bank echoed Fetter’s goading in our hearts: “Go get it, Pokey!”

Finally, Fetter got Pokey to go in by using real duck scent and throwing a stick out by the float. The dog brought the dummy back. Fetter called out, “Good boy, good bird,” again and again, congratulating the dog.

We started around the pond to do scenting training. Raines moved to the trainer’s side.

“His initial reluctance on the dummy, was that because the water made him cold?”

“No, because of lack of confidence,” Fetter said.

Raines nodded, but Pokey’s failure seemed to make him a little sour.

That afternoon, we sat by the massive stone fireplace, and it was time to ask about the Times.

Raines writes in the book that he was trying to save the Times with drastic but necessary changes—revolutionary ideas. Early in his newspapering career, he writes, “I began forming the ideas that would one day get me fired.” After the Times won seven Pulitzer Prizes for 2001, he had the political capital to take on “one after another those creaky, dust-covered sections that were supposed to tell our readers about culture, travel, sports, books, the life of the mind.” This was such heroic work, Raines says, that for once he did not regret giving up his first love, his literary career. The Times was a crucial democratic institution. Yet it was a dying lake. He was going to reverse that process. No wonder the lifers resented him.

They got their chance to turn the tables during the Jayson Blair scandal.

The six weeks from the first charge of plagiarism on April 28, 2003, to Raines’s firing on June 5 are surely among the most awful in the history of the paper. That first accusation against Blair, a young black reporter, soon led to an investigation of scores of other articles he had made up or stolen. His fraud seemed to pervade the most important newsroom in the country. It became a national scandal, on magazine covers and the nightly news.

In his book, Raines places the blame squarely on Blair. Noting his son Ben’s question about whether Blair was a dwarf—he is said to be five feet tall—Raines wrote, “My career had been hit by a plummeting dwarf, falling straight and fast and nothing is likely to survive that.” There are also several references to “Little Jayson Blair.”

“You seem angry at him,” I said, trying to draw out his emotion.

“No.” Raines said he pitied Blair. “I would never try to disown anger as an emotion. What I was trying to use that language for was to show some distance and some understanding, as well as obviously the initial anger that I and everyone at the Times felt, that this guy had betrayed the most fundamental compact of our profession.”

“You don’t mention Lelyveld by name. Why not?”

“No need to.”

In the Kremlinology of the book, unnamed, but identified in other ways, are two reporters he calls among the smartest at the paper: Adam Liptak and David Barstow. They were two of Raines’s favorites, put in the terrible position of helping to prepare the Times’ long investigative piece about the Blair scandal that ran May 11. Raines judged the story to be fatal to his career, as it offered a theory of the Blair case that Raines and his top aides should have paid more attention six months before, when prosecutors in the Washington-area sniper case angrily questioned a Blair “scoop” in the story.

“Are you angry at Liptak?”

“No. Whether or not I’m referring to Adam, or whoever I’m referring to, is not germane to a memoir, which is my experience in a situation. One thing I wanted to do in this book was not for it to be about hugging my friends and sticking my finger in the eyes of people I didn’t like. And in fact, I have a pretty high regard for just about everybody involved at the Times in that period.”

Liptak and Barstow represent the best of the Raines system. Liptak might be moldering at his desk as a lawyer for the Times to this day were it not for Raines. And as for Barstow, he won a Pulitzer Prize the year after Raines left for an investigative series on workplace horrors that Raines had encouraged him to do.

Raines was obviously upset, but he wasn’t letting anyone in. Here were two guys he’d lifted up, and they’re both doing great. And he has fallen from the highest perch in journalism. Whose heart wouldn’t go out to him?

“I will be forever grateful to that man for doing the things he did for me, giving me the green light, giving me the space, giving me the time. And more than that, being completely behind a story that would absolutely hurt him in his hometown, Birmingham,” Barstow says. “I can’t think of a story that I took less pleasure in [than the investigation of Blair in May]. I hated every minute. The only good things that came out of that were the unbelievable bonds I formed with the guys I worked with. But if Howell thinks that our theory of the case is what did him in, he is a man who has not come to grips with himself.”

Raines sensed my interest in his feelings. “I once told Gail Sheehy—this was not an original insight on my part, I read it somewhere—that football is the perfect metaphor for American corporate life. You have to inflict pain and sustain pain for the good of the organization … So to suddenly—for a halfback to suddenly jump up and say, ‘Hey, I got tackled and it hurt!’ it’s just not on. Maybe that’s a silly example.”

Of course, these days, after a big game, coaches and players come out to a big room to face the press. The ones who let it hang out are the ones who get fawned over. But Raines was living by an old code. I found this out when I pressed him about the several oblique references in his book to his time as a romantic freelancer in Manhattan.

“I wanted to experience that liberated aspect of life in New York in the same way that if one suddenly found oneself transferred to Paris, one would want to experience the romance of Paris.”

I asked Raines if journalism could still be a progressive force. “I leave that for the next generation to figure out,” he said. “I’m on another journey now.”

“So, did you make it with a lot of girls?” I asked, being blunt.

Raines scowled. “I’m not going to … There’s no way a gentleman can answer that question.”

I said, “I guess you just demonstrated the difference between a gentleman and someone who’s not.”

“One of the definitions of a gentleman is that a gentleman has an acute sense of propriety. Full stop.”

As the Times part of our conversation went on, I began to identify with Times staffers who had said that they were afraid to cross him. Raines and I had gotten along well for days; he was hugely entertaining. Now his broad, dark face was full of storm. He said I’d picked up a caricature of him that was out there. It was something that happens when you get a big clip file, and he wasn’t going to try to correct it. “I still know who I am, I know who the real me is, I know my strengths and my weaknesses …”

At the height of the Blair scandal, on May 14, the Times held a town-hall meeting for over 1,000 staff members in the Loews cinema in Times Square, and hardheaded newsmen rose in the seats to accuse Raines of undermining basic journalistic values. “You saw Times lifers who in a million years were not the type to get upset, erupt in anger or tears,” one writer recalls. “Sam Roberts, Susan Chira—these are nice, solid, intelligent Times loyalists, not revolutionaries.”

They said that Raines had driven them hard only on stories that would get the most attention or that reflected his concerns. The normal checks and balances of an institution had given way to an intense, headlong, individualistic culture. One editor rose to say that Raines had lost the newsroom’s confidence. When reporter Alex Berenson asked, “Have you considered resigning?” there were stunned murmurs throughout the hall.

Raines came away from the meeting staggered. “He was in shell shock,” says Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor. “He couldn’t believe people felt so strongly.” Over the next three weeks, Raines had meetings with staff, trying to win them back. “He was desperate to survive,” Kramon remembers. “He said, ‘I can change,’ and ‘What do I need to do to regain your confidence?’ But people didn’t help him. It was too late. And he never really said, ‘I was wrong.’ ”

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.

Fishing With Howell