Preview of New Howell Raines Book: Blair Takes Back Seat

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By: Greg Mitchell

Those who think the title of Howell Raines? forthcoming memoir, ?The One That Got Away,? refers to Jayson Blair surely will be disappointed. In fact, the Blair Affair receives minor notice in the book, to be published in May. The book covers much of the 13 years that have elapsed since Raines? last memoir, ?Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis,? with only full two chapters out of 43 devoted to his downfall at The New York Times.

As for Judy Miller, the former executive editor?s star WMD reporter?she doesn?t show up at all, according to the book?s index. But Roger Miller, who wrote the songs “Dang Me” and “King of the Road,” does earn a mention.

As in his previous book, Raines gets out of the newsroom quite a bit. He continually shifts to fishing tales (tall or otherwise), his two sons (one of them a reporter, the other in the funk band, Galactic), his adventures as a bachelor in Manhattan, famed Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, his second wife, or childhood memories. Apparently he feels he said nearly enough about Blair in his Atlantic cover story, which was praised by some for its honesty, panned by others for its prickliness.

Returning to Blair here, Raines focuses on the 2003 clean-up operation, claiming that from the ?instant I got the news? about his misdeeds ?there would be no doubt. However disgusting Jayson?s behavior, it was all going to be news that was fit to print.?

Raines offers a couple of amusing anecdotes involving family members during this difficult period. He quotes his son Ben, the Mobile Register reporter, asking over the phone: ?Dad, is Jayson Blair a dwarf?? Raines says he responded, ?Jayson is very short, but he?s not a dwarf, at least not a physical dwarf.?

He also recalls the advice of his wife Krystyna before the fabled showdown meeting with Times staffers in a New York theater: ?Remember, your job for the next two hours is to resist every impulse to tell them to go fuck themselves.?

At that meeting, he recalls looking out at the crowd and spotting one fellow who vigorously clapped every time someone criticized Raines. This reporter was ?a beneficiary of one of my second chances,? someone others would not hire because of a past association with drugs. Raines comments: ?Maybe I flew into a Bermuda Triangle of angry druggies, of which Jayson was only one corner.? Then he mentions in passing an unnamed Newsweek reporter who was “hammering me,” who could only be Seth Mnookin.

Raines muses that while he was sometimes accused of being too soft on blacks, “I think my soft spot for ex-junkies caused me a lot more trouble.”

At another point, he points to an unnamed Times editor who had ripped him, who he thought had a “good heart” but turned out to have “the soul of a bushwhacker,” which caused Raines to wonder: What was it was about the Times that had allegedly done that to the man? “Upon the stroke of the moment that question popped into my head,” he writes, “I fell out of love with The New York Times.”

As for Blair: ?There was no question he was liar.? And: ?Never before had a dog eaten so much homework.? Raines refers to memos ?charting the little man?s journey through my Times.?

He calls Blair?s promotion to full reporter in 2001 ?puzzling,? while noting (wouldn?t you?) that it took place seven months before Raines was appointed executive editor. He also hits the Newspaper Guild for complaining that Blair was being ?harassed? when the copy desk found one error after another in his work.

Raines still can?t quite figure out how Blair kept advancing at the Times, or who was responsible, but in the end he knew he would be ?accountable for all messes, including inherited ones? when he signed on for the top post. ?The point was,? he adds, ?ass-biting time had arrived.?

Then, after assigning the tough piece on Blair that would eventually end up on page one and pretty much doom his career at the Times, Raines says he left the office that day ?with a clear conscience, with an absolute conviction that I had made the right decision ethically, and without worry for my future, let it come rough or smooth. There are a lot of things you can?t get from newspapering, but a satisfied mind is something you can have each and every day if you follow the compass of honor.?

Yet Raines remains sad that while “Little Jayson Blair” had taken “only one thing” from him, it was significant: “a benign circuitry of connection with people at the Times,” dating back over a quarter of a century.

(Note: A review of other aspects of the book will follow.)

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