Raines Succeeds Lelyveld at Times

The announcement that New York Times editorial-page editor Howell Raines will succeed Joseph Lelyveld as the paper’s next executive editor hardly came as a shocker. As one Times reporter noted, the “smart money” had been on Mr. Raines for ages, to the point where the practice of handicapping the chances of Mr. Raines and his closest competitor, managing editor Bill Keller–once a favorite pastime of Times staffers and Times Kremlinologists alike–had all but disappeared by the time the paper made the news official.

That’s not to say there weren’t surprises and major unanswered questions contained within the Monday, May 21, announcement. Chief among the surprises was the news that Mr. Lelyveld, who turned 64 on April 5, planned to vacate the executive editor’s chair this September, long before his 66th birthday in 2003, when Times policy dictates that he retire. Though it had been speculated that Mr. Lelyveld would move on before that date, few expected it would happen this year.

“There was surprise in that no one had known that Joe was going to leave so soon,” a Times reporter said.

Mr. Lelyveld did not return Off the Record’s calls for comment. But in a memo to the Times staff, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote that Mr. Lelyveld made the decision to retire early around the end of last year. “I spent a few weeks trying to talk him out of it,” Mr. Sulzberger wrote, but by early January, a Times sources said, the executive editor and his boss had agreed that Mr. Lelyveld would step down in September.

Shortly before a 4 p.m. meeting Monday in the newsroom, Mr. Lelyveld met with the department heads to tell them of the decision. There, according to people present, Mr. Lelyveld said he was stepping down early so as to quell newsroom speculation about the transition. He told the Los Angeles Times the same thing: “If we didn’t have mandatory retirement here, I would probably have wanted to stay another couple of years. But the approaching deadline gets into everybody’s thinking, and people start becoming very worried about themselves and their own careers, and it takes the paper’s focus off the news.”

One Times editor speculated that Mr. Lelyveld simply felt the timing was appropriate. “I think Joe has a lot of pride, and he didn’t want anyone thinking that he was hanging around until the last moment of power,” the editor said.

Others at The Times , while not contradicting that reasoning, added that Mr. Lelyveld’s departure makes sense considering that much of his institutional check-list has been completed. Though downplayed in public, The Times ‘ shut-out at the 2000 Pulitzers–the paper’s first blanking in 14 years–had been seen as an embarrassment for Mr. Lelyveld, though the paper bounced back this year with two Pulitzers.

At the same time, sources said, Mr. Lelyveld may have felt that, internally, he had done as much as he could. It had been no secret that Mr. Lelyveld had been pushing Mr. Keller–a protégé of sorts–as his successor. When it became clear that Mr. Raines would succeed him, there just wasn’t another major field left to conquer, they said, and he didn’t want to get caught up in the succession intrigue any longer than he had to.

With Mr. Lelyveld set to move on and write books in his home upstate, the big question moves on to Mr. Raines and what his installation means to the future of The Times .

Curiously, Mr. Raines is a longtime Times man who retains something of a mysterious edge within The Times because of his eight-year absence from the news side of the operation. He began with the paper in 1978, after working at several Alabama and Georgia newspapers, and moved around the national-correspondent ranks until he landed in the Washington bureau. After working as the London correspondent for a year beginning in 1987, Mr. Raines became the Washington bureau chief before being tapped by Mr. Sulzberger as editorial-page editor in 1993.

“I think he’s very much in the tradition of executive editors in that he’s touched all the positions on the cross,” said Susan Tifft, who co-wrote The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times with Alex Jones.

“Unlike some other executive editors, [Mr. Raines has] been in the inner circle for several years now,” Ms. Tifft said. “He’s very much been in training in the last few years. He’s probably more prepared to lead than his predecessor.”

But naturally, there are concerns. There has long been a faint yet persistent worry–an irrational one, insiders said–that a primarily domestically experienced editor like Mr. Raines might reduce the paper’s international coverage, a Times hallmark. There is also the concern that Mr. Raines would seek to develop a star system similar to the one he was accused of cultivating as bureau chief in Washington, where Maureen Dowd rose under his watch. Ms. Tifft said that Mr. Raines has made efforts in recent years to address those concerns; still, some worry lingers that Mr. Raines could be a newsprint Louis B. Mayer.

As for the paper’s overall tone, Mr. Raines has long developed a reputation as a clear-headed, occasionally pugilistic reporter and editor, known for his occasionally scathing editorial pages and his unapologetic indifference to journalistic navel-gazing and wonkish hand-wringing on policy issues. But as for whether those qualities would penetrate a Raines-led paper, one highly placed Times source urged restraint.

“Anyone who says they know what is happening, what Howell is going to do, is essentially just spinning, because no one knows,” the source said.

Mr. Sulzberger did not formally offer Mr. Raines the job as executive editor until the morning of Friday, May 18. Afterwards, Mr. Keller was called to Mr. Sulzberger’s home, where he was told of the decision.

The original plan was to keep this transition under wraps until late June, which would give Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Raines a chance to decide who was going to take over the editorial-page editor’s and managing editor’s positions–to date, unanswered questions both–as well as what Mr. Keller would do. Though Mr. Keller will continue as managing editor until Mr. Lelyveld steps down, traditionally the executive editor appoints his own managing editor, who serves as his deputy.

But there was a change of plan, and the announcement was rushed forward just a couple of days after Mr. Sulzberger had made up his own mind. Sources at The Times said that the announcement was made quickly because the news of Mr. Raines’ appointment began to spread among the staff. At the Monday staff meeting, Mr. Lelyveld noted the fear of “leaks” getting out before the paper made it official, sources said.

The Times was right to worry. Several sources said that word was already out about Mr. Raines’ selection at the Washington bureau. And Saturday in Brooklyn, at a going-away party for Times investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald–who is moving to Dallas but staying in his job–one Times staffer announced to the attendees that an announcement was coming on Monday naming Mr. Raines as executive editor, Mr. Eichenwald said.

On the other hand, The Times has managed to keep secrets in the past. In their book, Ms. Tifft and Mr. Jones wrote that Mr. Sulzberger first offered Mr. Lelyveld the executive editor’s job during a walk in the snow in January 1994. The announcement that Mr. Lelyveld would succeed outgoing executive editor Max Frankel didn’t come until April of that year. This time, it is clear, the paper couldn’t keep the big switch so quiet.

It was getting late on the night of Friday, May 18, and The New Yorker ‘s literary editor, Bill Buford, was munching on roast beef as a high-calorie buffet of writers, including Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Dave Eggers, milled about in his living room.

For the second year in a row, Mr. Buford had offered to host a party to kick off the weekend-long New Yorker Festival, even though his two-bedroom Gramercy Park apartment was, at least by Manhattan standards, a bit cramped. In preparation for the evening, Mr. Buford had packed up all of his furniture–save for a mattress, which he stowed in a hallway–and shuttled it out in order to make room for what he called “the greatest concentration of writers of fiction in the English language.”

“Most of the cleaning-up was looking for manuscripts,” Mr. Buford admitted, picking at a salad. Earlier in the day, in fact, Mr. Buford said that he’d found a five-book proposal by Mr. Rushdie lying amid the clutter.

The crowded feast in Mr. Buford’s apartment, of course, was just a prelude to the jam-packed a-go-go to follow. The second New Yorker Festival sold out all 53 of its events to 15,000 people, who paid $15 to $85 for the chance to see famous novelists, along with New Yorker regulars like Adam Gopnik, Malcolm Gladwell and Roz Chast, hold forth. There was something almost Britney Spears-giddy about this public crescendo of reader devotion. Mr. Buford heaped praise upon the Festival’s maestro, The New Yorker ‘s director of special projects, Rhonda Sherman.

“Rhonda’s premise, which is sound, is if you can persuade the best serious writers all over the world to come to one event–plus just a little glamour–then you will create serious buzz,” Mr. Buford said.

Tonight, said glamour and buzz was supplied not just by the roster of high-profile pens crammed into Mr. Buford’s home, but also by the likes of Mr. Rushdie’s writer, model and actress girlfriend, Padma Lakshmi (much of whom can be currently seen in the “Hollywood Starlets” pictorial supplement of the British magazine Arena ) and by the actor Steve Martin, he of the recent novel Shop Girl .

What did New Yorker editor David Remnick think of this starry weekend? “If you’re asking me why this happened, I couldn’t answer with absolute accuracy,” Mr. Remnick said near the elevator. “All I could do is speculate. Obviously, there’s a hunger for it.”

Steve Wasserman, the books editor of the Los Angeles Times, was also on his way out with his girlfriend.

Mr. Remnick asked Mr. Wasserman, “They just had a book festival in Los Angeles that drew how many people?”

“One hundred and twenty thousand,” Mr. Wasserman said. “And this is the land, it is thought, where people are more devoted to the cult of the body than the life of the mind.”

“And they weren’t all books about breast implants,” Mr. Remnick said.

The elevator opened, with four new arrivals standing inside.

“Even if you’re here just to crash,” Mr. Remnick said, welcoming them, “Buford has booze–everything!”

Times sportswriter Buster Olney is apparently on a first-name basis with budding Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki. Covering the May 20 Yankees-Mariners game in a piece that appeared on May 21, Mr. Olney wrote, “Clemens retired Ichiro Suzuki leading off the game, mixing a couple of inside fastballs that spun Ichiro away from the plate …”

Hey, and remember the time that Roger threw a broken bat at Mike? Well, it’s not exactly like that. As Mr. Olney explained in a different article published on the same day, the idiosyncratic Mr. Suzuki–who recently arrived in the major leagues from Japan–”is known by his first name.” In fact, Mr. Suzuki went so far as to request that ICHIRO, not SUZUKI, be printed on the back of his Mariners jersey.

Still, Ichiro isn’t Cher yet; for now, at least, the guy’s got a last name. Is this the end of formality at The Times ? Toby Usnik, a spokesman for the paper, said: “It was an anomaly. It was one reporter’s treatment for that day.” In fact, Mr. Olney himself, writing on May 20, called Mr. Suzuki “Suzuki.” So does Sam Howe Verhovek, The Times’ Seattle bureau chief.

Mr. Usnik said that in the case of Mr. Olney’s “Ichiro” articles, The Times ‘ copy department reviewed the matter and decided that Mr. Suzuki was entitled to whatever title he liked. Sort of. “The reporter noted that Suzuki–excuse me, Ichiro–likes to go by his first name,” he said. But, he went on, “our practice with Ichiro Suzuki is to use ‘Suzuki.'”

–Ian Blecher