Consensus at Times on Succession: It’s Howell Raines, Not Keller

A little more than one year from now–April 5, 2002– The New York Times’ executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, will turn 65, the mandatory retirement age for editors at the paper. Speculation about Mr. Lelyveld’s successor has raged for years, and the consensus has been that there are two contenders: Bill Keller, The Times ‘ managing editor, and Howell Raines, the editorial-page editor.

But within The New York Times , many staff members interviewed said that the field has been narrowed to one. The general feeling on the paper is that the executive editor’s job is Mr. Raines’ to lose.

“There is a consensus that seems to be growing that it’s going to be Howell,” said one high-level Times staff member, who added: “I would be very surprised if it wasn’t Howell. Some days I think he expects to be editor, and anybody who knows Howell knows he wants the job and thinks he deserves it.”

Internally and psychologically, the staff of The New York Times is preparing to answer to Mr. Raines. “It’s hard to imagine Howell not getting it,” said another Times staff member.

Neither Mr. Lelyveld nor Mr. Raines returned Off the Record’s calls for comment. For his part, Mr. Keller wasn’t interested in addressing the succession issue. “Nice try,” he said.

In the end, he choice of the next executive editor belongs solely to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and there is no indication that Mr. Sulzberger has made a decision. “Joeis63,”aspokeswomanforMr. Sulzberger told The Observer. “He can retire any time he wants before he turns 66. Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?”

Not really, considering how The New York Times reports on men and women in Washington and Albany and New York City battling for newsworthy positions. The executive editor of The Times has more influence on news coverage, and sometimes public policy, than any other news executive in the United States. The succession is considered far in advance; the saga of A.M. Rosenthal’s retirement lasted for years. And when Mr. Lelyveld’s predecessor, Max Frankel, decided he was going to retire, Mr. Sulzberger asked Mr. Lelyveld to be the executive editor seven months before Mr. Frankel stepped down in July 1994.

It is unclear exactly when the transfer of power will occur–the announcement is usually posted suddenly, without warning. Mr. Lelyveld does turn 65 in April 2002, but there is precedent at The Times for staying a bit longer, and he could possibly remain executive editor through the end of the calendar year.

The most common factor cited in Mr. Raines’ favor is simply the age difference between him and Mr. Keller. There’s a recent tendency at The Times to avoid having an executive editor serve as long as Mr. Rosenthal, who ruled from 1969 to 1986. Since The Times has a mandatory retirement policy, the 58-year-old Mr. Raines would hold the top post for about six years, versus the 12 years the 52-year-old Mr. Keller would have.

Mr. Lelyveld stepped up to bat in 1994.

“After Abe’s long rule, they only wanted someone who would stay in the job seven or eight years, so Keller is the wrong age,” said one Times staffer.

But more important, ultimately, is the close relationship between Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Raines, several sources at the paper said.

“Howell, I think, gets along with Arthur very well,” said one Times staff member. “There seems to be a chemistry there that you don’t see with Joe and Bill.”

“People do notice that Howell seems to be on the same wavelength with Arthur,” said another source, “which is expected, because the publisher does confer with the editorial editor about the editorial board.”

At least some of the mutual affection between Mr. Raines and Mr. Sulzberger may be culturally based. Mr. Raines came up on the political track at The Times , helming the Washington bureau before he took his current job. Mr. Sulzberger also did a stint in the Washington bureau. The Southern charms of the Birmingham, Ala.-born Mr. Raines may also have worked to his advantage. “There is a long history of the Sulzberger family’s fascination with Southerners,” said one source.

The wacky, sometimes overheated speculation over editorial succession at The Times was in evidence following a recent party that Mr. Keller gave at his home in honor of Michael Oreskes, the former Washington bureau chief recently named assistant managing editor in charge of developing television projects for the paper.

The entire Times politburo showed up at Mr. Keller’s Upper West Side apartment: Mr. Sulzberger, his wife Gail, Mr. Lelyveld and Mr. Raines. Some who attended took the choice of Mr. Keller as the party’s host as a signal that he was being tested in the role of Times figurehead.

In toasting Mr. Oreskes, attendees said, Mr. Keller poked fun at television news– a gibe that was not exactly out of character for the managing editor, whom one attendee described as “legendary for off-key toasts.” Although Mr. Keller declined to be interviewed for this story, the managing editor did say he wasn’t making fun of TV at the party for Mr. Oreskes. But The Times ‘ internal speculators immediately saw it as evidence that Mr. Keller was out of sync with Mr. Sulzberger’s aggressive plans for turning The Times into a multimedia news organization, with television projects as a prime assault weapon.

Another impediment for Mr. Keller’s hopes, some Times sources said, is his indelicate handling of delicate situations. For instance, when The Times published its Editor’s Note last September acknowledging problems in its coverage of Los Alamos spy suspect Wen Ho Lee–in which Mr. Keller had some responsibility–it included the following prickly line: “In those instances where we fell short of our standards in our coverage of this story, the blame lies principally with those who directed the coverage, for not raising questions that occurred to us only later.”

Some read that as hanging the blame for the fiasco on Steve Engelberg, the editor in charge of the Wen Ho Lee stories. The immediate feeling at The Times, accurate or not, was that Mr. Keller was not adequately protecting one of his editors. To dispel that notion, Mr. Keller sent out a staff memo saying, “Joe and I have tried to make clear in meetings with staff what seemed obvious to us: that the paragraph referred to ourselves,” and that Mr. Engelberg was not “the scapegoat for the shortcomings we acknowledged.”

Taking Sides

A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for his work in Russia in 1989, Mr. Keller would appear to be a natural heir apparent. His résumé at The Times has a lot in common with Mr. Lelyveld’s. While Mr. Keller worked for several other papers before being hired by The Times in 1984, he was soon on the foreign-correspondent track, in Moscow and–like Mr. Lelyveld–Johannesburg, South Africa. Also like Mr. Lelyveld, Mr. Keller was named foreign editor after his stint as a correspondent. He was promoted to managing editor when Gene Roberts, Mr. Lelyveld’s first managing editor, retired.

Traditionally, the Times power structure has broken between those who were brought up through the foreign desk, like Mr. Lelyveld and Mr. Keller, and those who came up through the national desk and the Washington bureau, like Mr. Raines, whose Pulitzer Prize was domestic and regional–a Times Magazine memoir, “Grady’s Gift,” about race relations in the South. He came up through newspapers in St. Petersburg, Fla., Birmingham and Atlanta. With the exception of a year as London bureau chief in 1987, his defining position at the paper–consistent with the territory he still administers with authority and humor–was running the Washington bureau , which is the white-hot center of the current New York Times .

Especially in recent years, The Times ‘ dominance over politics and national affairs –propelled in no small part by Mr. Raines and his stinging editorial-page criticism of the Clinton administration–has driven the paper. Recently–and certainly during the Clinton years–international news has taken a back seat, and so have Mr. Keller’s chances to achieve dominance.

Much has been made of the fact that Mr. Raines was sent off to an executive-management course at Dartmouth during the summer of 1999. Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, the authors of The Trust , a history of the Ochs and Sulzberger families, wrote in The New Yorker : “When Lelyveld heard about that sabbatical, he sought–and got–assurances from Arthur that this did not indicate that a decision about the succession had been reached.”

Whatever sending top editors to mini-M.B.A. courses indicates, last summer Mr. Keller got packed off to a course at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

“That made people go, ‘ Hmmm ,’” said one Times editor.

Consensus or not, sources at The Times say that Mr. Lelyveld still favors Mr. Keller as his next executive editor. “Joe is still absolutely determined to make Bill his successor,” said one Times staff member. Last May, Mr. Lelyveld went on Charlie Rose’s PBS interview program for a rare interview and addressed the succession issue.

“There are two conspicuous people, each highly ready to take over the paper, each of whom would do a first-class job,” Mr. Lelyveld said. Mr. Sulzberger, he added, “has got an embarrassment of riches. There are even others who could easily be imagined stepping into the job. It won’t be an easy choice….”

“So, there’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of having people you could choose,” Mr. Rose began, “either whether it’s Howell Raines or whether it’s Bill Keller or whether it is someone else?”

“Right,” Mr. Lelyveld said, nodding. And Mr. Rose may have gotten the order exactly right, as the staff of The New York Times currently experiences it: Mr. Raines.

Or Mr. Keller. Or someone else.