Judy, Come Home! Miller’s Return On Times’ Table

Reporter Judith Miller may be returning to the New York Times newsroom this month. According to sources familiar with Ms. Miller’s negotiations, she has signaled that her potential homecoming could happen as early as next week.

“I am not commenting on my discussions with the paper,” Ms. Miller said by phone on Nov. 1. “No decisions have been made. I can’t comment any further.”

Ms. Miller is still involved in talks with the paper—whose executive editor, Bill Keller, publicly lamented her “entanglement” with now-indicted Vice Presidential aide I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby in the Valerie Plame Wilson leak case.

But even as The Times has sought to isolate Ms. Miller, she has gathered powerful friends to her side. And those talks appear to be turning from severance toward reconciliation, according to Times sources.

With her long-term Times future unsettled, she would be returning under her old employment terms as a member of the Guild, reversing her earlier announced plans to stay away from The Times through the end of the year.

“Her return would disappoint most of my colleagues at The Times,” a staffer said. “What I find remarkable is that this is a situation where our editors have described a reporter having openly misled them, and there’s no disciplinary consequences to that.”

Hints of a potential change of heart were on display on Oct. 29, as Ms. Miller and her husband, book editor Jason Epstein, dined at the Southampton estate of Felix Rohatyn, just a few gilded doors down Gin Lane from the manse of retired Times publisher Arthur (Punch) Sulzberger.

“She seemed very upbeat and cheerful,” said a fellow dinner guest. “She certainly conveyed the impression that she’s assuming that she was going to go back. I think it was something like ‘When I go back’ or ‘Assuming I go back’—that kind of a word. It certainly wasn’t ‘I’m not going back.’”

For Mr. Sulzberger’s son, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Ms. Miller is a relentless source of tsuris—the most visible example of his inability as an executive to make a problem go away. On Friday, Mr. Keller is due to visit the paper’s Washington bureau, where hostility to Ms. Miller runs deepest, for a brown-bag lunch with the staff. Reporters plan to bring up the subject of Ms. Miller, according to one bureau source.

But while the younger Mr. Sulz-berger and company suffer, on West 43rd Street and in Washington, Ms. Miller has found solace in the Hamptons, in the forgiving arms of a high-powered social set.

Mr. Rohatyn, the Austrian-born financier and former ambassador to France, is a close personal friend of Ms. Miller. In attendance at the dinner were Mr. Rohatyn’s wife, Elizabeth Rohatyn; Peter Peterson, founder of the Blackstone Group and current chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Mr. Peterson’s wife, Joan Ganz Cooney, the Sesame Street creator.

The Times has tried to distance itself from Ms. Miller. But in the standoff with its reporter, the newspaper of the liberal establishment finds itself at odds with a considerable chunk of that same establishment—specifically, the high-powered chunk that shuttles between Manhattan and posh enclaves in the East End.

It is at dinners with the Rohatyns in Southampton, or over coffee with her book editor, Alice Mayhew, at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, that Ms. Miller has regrouped and strategized.

Landing a seat in Ms. Miller’s war room has taken on a certain social cachet, akin to dropping a sly mention of an invitation to Davos at a cocktail party. At a recent high-octane Manhattan social event, Mr. Peterson—whose Water Mill home isn’t far from Ms. Miller’s retreat in Sag Harbor—was overhead telling friends that he had become involved in negotiations between the embattled journalist and The Times. Mr. Peterson has somewhat famously bargained for media types before, negotiating contracts for Diane Sawyer and Roone Arledge, and handling the personal finances of Liz Smith.

“I’m a personal friend, not an advisor,” Mr. Peterson clarified later by phone. “She has her own advisors.”

And plenty of them. “I’m very grateful for their support,” Ms. Miller said by phone from Sag Harbor on the evening of Oct. 30. “It’s difficult for people, because The Times is a powerful institution, and a lot of people are frightened to go up against The Times. One thing is, you find out who your friends are. And I’m gratified to see that I have a lot of them.”

A key figure among Ms. Miller’s friends at the moment is Matthew Mallow, who has known her for 15 years. Mr. Mallow, 62, is the head of the corporate-finance department at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. At Ms. Miller’s request, he joined the legal team handling her contempt case this past winter, along with his Washington, D.C., partner, Robert Bennett. When she was jailed, Mr. Mallow visited her every Thursday.

Now Mr. Mallow and his partner, Skadden labor lawyer John Furfaro, are representing her in her negotiations with The Times over possible severance.

Mr. Mallow declined to comment, other than to say: “I’m a friend, and I believe friendship counts.”

Both Mr. Mallow and his wife, reproductive-rights activist and writer Ellen Chesler, are prominent Democratic donors and fund-raisers. During the Clinton administration, they were among some of the First Couple’s overnight guests. Their Bridgehampton and Dakota homes have been the sites of fund-raisers for Senator Hillary Clinton, Mayoral hopeful Mark Green and Presidential candidate Howard Dean.

But at the moment, across the Manhhamptons, the political affiliation that matters is friendship with Judy.

Ms. Miller’s social network includes the novelist E.L. Doctorow and the real-estate baron turned media mogul Mort Zuckerman, who several years ago hosted Ms. Miller and Mr. Epstein on his yacht. In July, on Ms. Miller’s last night in New York before reporting to the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia, she dined at an Italian restaurant on East 85th Street, hosted by a group of women that included novelist Shirley Lord, Vanity Fair scribe Marie Brenner, Ms. Rohatyn, Peggy Noonan, Ms. Chesler and New York magazine writer Meryl Gordon.

“I don’t believe I have to agree with my friends on all issues,” said Ms. Chesler, who first became friends with Ms. Miller while working at the Century Foundation in the early 1990’s. “I don’t agree with Judy on some issues. The whole point of a liberal temperament is to accept differences of opinion …. I don’t always agree with her, but she knows things I don’t know. And it’s wise of me to listen to her. I learn a lot from people I disagree with.”

“All of our friends have different complicated times in their lives. And you stay their friend—you don’t just turn away,” Ms. Rohatyn said.

“Their support has been offered in a lot of ways,” Ms. Miller said. “It’s been everything from an e-mail to a phone call saying, ‘What the hell is going on at your company?’ A lot times people are saying, ‘Just hang in there.’”

The place where Ms. Miller has been doing her hanging-in is the bayside hamlet of Sag Harbor, where she and Mr. Epstein live in a modest 19th-century house on Union Street with an herb garden and a lap pool. Though the couple has an apartment at the Police Building on Centre Street, Sag Harbor is the place to which Ms. Miller retreated after her 85 days in jail, for a walk on the Bridgehampton beach with Ms. Chesler and dinner at the American Hotel—which, on a busy day, could pass for the front room at Michael’s.

During Ms. Miller’s confinement, American Hotel owner Ted Conklin and writer Harry Hurt III posted an open letter in support of her in the lobby. Each week, a new copy went up, to be mailed to Ms. Miller in jail after it had collected signatures.

“We want you to know that we here in Sag Harbor, along with your many admirers and kindred spirits around the globe, love you and miss you. Together, we are working and praying for the day when you will once again come home to us, free, free, at last,” the letter read, anticipating the tone of Mr. Libby’s now-famous letter urging Ms. Miller to testify.

Now that Ms. Miller is free, she can be spotted around 8 a.m. on her regular morning exercise walks, accompanied by the new black cockapoo—named Hamlet—that she got for Mr. Epstein before she went to jail.

Mr. Hurt recalled seeing her at the Sag Harbor pharmacy two weekends ago, the day Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd published her famously scathing column suggesting that Ms. Miller shouldn’t return to The Times. “She just said, ‘Maureen wrote this piece, and it’s titled “Woman of Mass Destruction,” and it’s an attack,’” Mr. Hurt said. “She almost giggled about it. Obviously, she knew some of the import of it. She didn’t seem angry; she didn’t seem depressed by it. It seemed to me she took it with the appropriate amount of chagrin.”

Between Ms. Dowd, Mr. Keller and public editor Byron Calame, The Times seemed to be sending a clear message that it wanted Ms. Miller to stay away.

“She can’t seem to please anybody. She’s moved from being the darling of the newspaper to being so ostracized,” said Ms. Chesler.

But according to sources familiar with Ms. Miller’s severance discussions, negotiations about her departure were at a standstill as of the end of October.

One of the main obstacles was Ms. Miller’s demand to write an opinion piece responding to her critics. Neither side seems willing to compromise on this point. “From the Times’ perspective the notion of giving her a last shot is offensive,” said one source familiar with the discussions. “From her point of view the idea of letting it stand with so many denunciations of her in the paper is unacceptable.”

Ms. Miller’s lawyer has also floated the idea of a non-disparagement agreement—a concept that seems hard to enforce, given the quasi-independent status of Ms. Dowd and Mr. Calame. And according to one source, Ms. Miller herself has indicated that she would never agree to a gag order.

After all, the people she talks to are the people who are on her side.

“My friends really understand why I did what I did, both in going to jail, and in the decision to leave,” Ms. Miller said. “The decision to leave, while the decision to go to jail has been well covered, and very well articulated, the decision by which I left jail has been blurred and hasn’t been well articulated. What’s surprised me is that my friends have got it.”

New York Times pundit standings, Oct. 25-31, 2005

1. Maureen Dowd, score 3.5 [rank last week: 3rd]

2. (tie) David Brooks, 0.0 [tie—4th]

Thomas L. Friedman, 0.0 [1st]

Bob Herbert, 0.0 [tie—4th]

Nicholas D. Kristof, 0.0 [tie—4th]

Paul Krugman, 0.0 [no rank]

Frank Rich, 0.0 [2nd]

John Tierney, 0.0 [tie—4th]

Maureen Dowd gave her chaperones the slip this past weekend and shimmied down the drainpipe from the TimesSelect Academy for Upstanding Pundits, sneaking back to the old, disreputable neighborhood of unpaid content with a New York Times Magazine essay on gender relations, an excerpt from her upcoming book. At roll call on Monday, she was rosy-cheeked and out of breath, grinning inwardly, her no-pay offering soaring on its way to No. 1 on the week’s Most E-Mailed list. But under the roof of TimesSelect, Ms. Dowd was the only columnist to chart at all, reaching No. 19 with her Oct. 26 column about Dick Cheney. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

—Tom Scocca

Judy, Come Home! Miller’s Return On Times’ Table