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There He Goes Again

By Jim McGrath

“The One That Got Away,” By Howell Raines, Scribner. 325 pages. $25.

It takes Howell Raines just one short chapter to share this unusually pedestrian but strikingly self-indulgent passage with an audience he can’t possibly understand very well. “If you read a book called ‘Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis,’ which came out in 1993, you know a fair amount about my life up to that point,” he says.

The problem is that Raines wasn’t nearly as prominent as he was accomplished at that point, when he was still only 50 years old. He was a driven, restless and altogether skillful writer and editor for the New York Times. But who would care about his life beyond the otherwise well-respected news pages that he came to hold in such impatient contempt?

Only an insider of odd and narrow curiosity would be drawn, I’d think, to that particular tale of his reflections about American politics, especially the banal unfairness of the Reagan era, and the author’s at times difficult family life. Raines had yet to have his great triumph, taking what truly was, to use one of his favorite searing descriptions, a calcified editorial page and restoring the intellectual energy and presence he had in mind for the rest of the paper. And he had yet to self-destruct as the top editor of the Times.

Memoir No. 2, barely a dozen years later, does its author this unforgivable disservice. It reduces him to something not too far advanced from one of nonfiction writing’s one-trick ponies, much closer to a jackass in the barns of his native Alabama than a thoroughbred for the big time of the stylish racetracks. Raines is actually doing a more than workmanlike job of describing himself and his own books when he starts getting down to business about the Times.

“Journalism that is essentially mimetic and has only to be as good as what was done the day before is dog easy to make. By instinct, mimetic journalists are widget makers,” he writes.

Really, Howell?

It’s critically important, in fact, to keep in mind that while Raines might not be especially likable, he’s nonetheless a brilliant fellow and entirely able writer, at least when he’s not writing these memoirs, apologias and no longer very relevant rebuttals to armies of critics that have long dispersed.

Let’s leave it to the people who know about and care about fly fishing to review the long, meandering tales of a sport whose meaning Raines ultimately exaggerates, or so it would seem here on dry land, as George Will does to baseball. The shrinks should probably have a shot as well at Raines’ observations, so full of quotations and citations from “experts” about human behavior.

This book is about the Times, where as Raines not so long ago wrote, he had 25 great years and one bad month. How do I know? Page 19 offers this helpful hint, in the concluding sentence of the first paragraph where a “reporter named Jayson Blair” is mentioned:

“This is not what this book is about.”

Right, Howell.

He sounds here much like he did in a widely read and discussed article in the Atlantic Monthly in 2004 that had even people who held him in generally high regard wondering if he didn’t have a personality flawed enough for the textbooks.

“I am not going to spend the rest of my life going over the details of the Blair scandal.”

Not beyond the next fishing adventure, perhaps. Or the next book advance.

Raines comes off as frustrated, angry, revengeful and even possessed at his failure as editor of the Times. Only there, he’s entitled to a certain bit of sympathy. How could it be any different, after Raines says, in essence, that a lack of humility was all but a job requirement to be editor. No one so intrigued by generals and football coaches gracefully moves on, not even to Paradise Township in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania and so close to the Delaware River, to a life with a hot, young wife and fishing adventures with the likes of the writer John McPhee.

Still, here’s Raines, three chapters from the end, with this lame, tepid prose of denial:

“When I got fired, the strongest emotion I felt was anger at myself. I had lost a game I should have won against opponents I could have outsmarted.”

Stop it, Howell.

Here, his book is, well, mimetic of the Atlantic piece. Blair had risen to the last of a series of jobs he never should have had under Raines’ reviled predecessor, Joe Lelyveld. If only Raines had received the now infamous memo written by Jonathan Landman, whom he doesn’t mention by name in this book, a ferocious critic who has since risen from metro editor to deputy managing editor.

You know, the one that went, “We must stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”

If only Raines hadn’t been so bent on personal honor and intellectual integrity to order the rather exhaustive and very impressive Times account of all of Blair’s wrongs. Raines now thinks that contributed to his undoing.

Raines is way too slick by this point. He sounds, by his parsing, dissecting and ultimately dodging, way too much like Bill Clinton, whose insincerity, cunning and manipulation Raines himself was exposing and challenging on the Times editorial page even before Monica Lewinsky brought her knee pads to Washington, Matt Drudge hung his shingle into cyberspace and George W. Bush played it all into an otherwise impossible election as president.

Some details about the Blair have scandal have changed, interestingly enough, in two years of the author’s recollections. In the Atlantic piece, Blair was actually a more sympathetic figure than he is in this book, deserving of the kind second chances Raines had seen extended to other addicts and abusers of alcohol and drugs that paid off in Pulitzer Prize quality work. Here, it’s jarring, then, for Raines to write, “Jayson’s second chance had to do with his claims of addiction.”

Raines’ take on the inevitable matter of race is, if anything, even more suspicious for a perspective that can be best described as revisionism. Oh, he stands by what he’s previously said about affirmative action.

“Where I come from you have to pick a ditch to die in on race. I made up my mind a long time ago I would die in the ditch for justice,’’ he quotes himself as saying about Blair. “That meant going the extra mile to pay the historical debts of racial discrimination.”

That’s still troubling, at least to me, for its alarming inability to distinguish affirmative action as a means of providing opportunity, to affirmative action as its own version of amnesty for the kind of serious mistakes continually made by the likes of Blair, who never should have been a reporter at the Times in the first place.

Only by now, Raines himself is among those suggesting that Blair was a race pimp. He writes about an e-mail Blair had sent to Times editors when his pending promotion from trainee-reporter to permanent staff member was “ ‘on hold’ for reasons obvious to all.”

“On the Sunday night before Christmas (of 2000), at 1:00 a.m., he took an astonishing gamble. He sent an e-mail to his mentor on the personnel staff saying he didn’t want his troubles to hold back the other candidates, two of whom were white and one of whom was Asian-American. The wee-hours e-mail might have indicated that Jayson was drunk or crazy. Or he might have been setting up the Times for a racial-discrimination lawsuit. By asking around among the editors, I satisfied myself that the latter interpretations prevailed.”

Raines sounds rather like another Southern writer describing his firing from a prestigious editors’ spot -– Willie Morris, who has a notable different recollection of his dismissal from Harper’s magazine in his first memoir. “North Toward Home” (1967) than his second, “New York Days,” (1993).

Some things don’t change at all, though. Raines still detests the Newspaper Guild, of which I am a former member, and still writes of it as if it had power and influence that can only exist in his mind. (I posted a rebuttal to his attack on the union on the Romenesko Web site not long after the Atlantic piece was published.) Here, the Guild is one more party to blame for Blair and all he did.

“All along the way, he (Jayson) was defended by the Newspaper Guild, the reporters’ union. When the copydesk cracked down on Jayson’s errors, the president of the guild issued an informal communiqué, a ‘Shop Paper,’ complaining that one of its members, unnamed, was being harassed and that the union wouldn’t stand for it.”

Now that’s news. Or is the Times that different from where I’ve worked? My experience is that the desk tends to be a stronghold of Guild activism, and that a war between the Guild and the desk, while the latter was doing the unpleasant work that Raines contemporaries and minions among the bosses were supposed to be doing, is all but impossible.

However, at least in this reference, Raines writes about the copy desk in a positive way. Otherwise, he’s much closer to contemptuous about the critical work of copy editing and the people who labor at it. It turns out that his first byline at his first paper, the Birmingham Post-Herald, marked, in his words, his liberation from the copy desk. He had volunteered to work, for free, helping to cover the 1964 Alabama-Auburn football game. (Hmm. No wonder why Raines has come to resent the Guild and the contracts and work rules it negotiates with the management of newspapers.)

He describes his assignment, as an Alabama player named Raymond Ogden ran a kick-off back for a touchdown:

“I saw Coach Bryant disappear behind a mass of players who came off the bench like jumping jacks. I began jumping, too, cheering Mr. Ogden as he came loping past, his head back, his feet striking the ground but four times in ten yards. I suspect life has held nothing grander for him than that moment, just as for me there has been no crisper and more seductive moment of definition than the instant in which he drew even with me on his way to the goal line.

“I was actually in the air when the revelation struck me. I realized I shouldn’t be jumping and I shouldn’t be cheering. I was not there as a fan. The knowledge hit me as abruptly as a slap. I remember looking at the notebook in my hand and then looking around to see if anyone had seen me. Almost thirty years later, in 1993, William Safire, in his “Political Dictionary” would credit me with inventing the term ‘defining moment’, which went on to become one of the clichés of American political reporting. I suppose if you invent a cliché it is all right to use it. This was my defining moment as a journalist. I leapt into the air as a fan, and as Raymond Ogden passed on his journey into obscurity, I came down as a reporter.”

If only liberation from the dreary ranks of editors had been followed, so many years later, by liberation by the dreary ranks of editors.

Still, Raines seems to aspire to be the author of a masterpiece. He said in the Atlantic piece two years ago, “Since I was twelve, my strongest interest has been in literature, and I’ll be turning in that direction in the extra years I’ve secured by getting fired.”

Raines is quickly closing in on the age at which the Times would have required his retirement as executive editor. But he should have more than enough time to produce something much closer to genuine literature, a “Lord of the Flies”, only about somebody else. Among the cursory suggestions for his next book, which would be his fifth, would be no fishing, no football and no autobiography. That much Raines owes, above all, to himself.

Jim McGrath is an editorial writer, and formerly a copy editor, at the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.

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