BRIAN LAMB, HOST:Howell Raines, author of "Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis." What are you talking about? What's the midlife crisis?
HOWELL RAINES, AUTHOR, "FLY FISHING THROUGH THE MIDLIFE CRISIS:" Well, for most men, I think, it's the 40s. Typically, in the male, 38 - 43 is when it starts. It may last a few months, more typically, several years. And 48 to 50 you should be out of it and having a really good time.
LAMB: How old are you?
RAINES: I'm 51.
LAMB: Are you out of that crisis yet?
RAINES: I'm having a really good time.
LAMB: We've got the cover of the book on camera. What's this painting from right here?
RAINES: That is a painting by a friend of mine who appears in the book, Bill Dunlap. It's from the Rapidan River in Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains near where President Hoover had his version of Camp David.
LAMB: How many presidents have been fly fishermen?
RAINES: Well, several. Hoover was the devoted fly fisherman and Cal Coolidge fished with a fly rod but with worms most of the time, and that irritated Hoover and he used to tease his fellow Republican about that. President Eisenhower liked to fly fish. President Bush is an ardent fisherman but a novice -- a self-described novice, as he says in my book, at fly-fishing. President Carter was the best fly fisherman ever to occupy the White House. He's ...
LAMB: How do you know?
RAINES: Research tells me that. And I haven't fished with them all but I think people in fly-fishing generally believe that he has the highest level of expertise. He's very knowledgeable. He took up fly-fishing as a diversion fairly late in life as people often tend to do and became passionate about it. And, in fact, if he had spent a little less time at the fly-fishing -- fly-tying bench -- maybe in the White House, he might have been there a bit longer, but he's a good fly fisherman.
LAMB: When did you get your idea to write a book?
RAINES: I started fooling with the idea of this book when a friend of mine asked me to do a piece for his magazine which was starting up called Southpoint, which was an original magazine in the South -- my home area. And so I told him I wanted to write a piece about the Rapidan River in Virginia, since it was a book about things in the South. And it turned out to be less about the Rapidan than about the experiences my sons and I and a man named Dick Blalock -- who's my fly-fishing guru and really the hero of this book -- had on the Rapidan. So that article was so much fun to write I decided to see if I could do a book.
LAMB: We'll set up here and get some of these pictures on so people can see what some of these characters look like. Before we do that, though, let me ask you about Rapidan. Where is it?
RAINES: Rapidan is in the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, about two hours west of Washington.
LAMB: Where did it get the name?
RAINES: It started in the Colonial period in Virginia. It was named for Queen Anne of Virginia. And because it was a fast river, they called it Rapid Anne and gradually that was corrupted into Rapidan. It sounds like an Indian word but it's really not.
LAMB: Let's look at some of these pictures and you can see that over there on the monitor. Who's this?
RAINES: That's my friend Dick Blalock. He was a foreign service officer in the State Department. And he was forced, because of an odd, tropical liver disease that he picked up while abroad with the foreign service, to take early retirement. So he went fishing when he was 37 and fished a long time.
LAMB: How about that one?
RAINES: That's me at age six and that's a very important event in my life. My parents let me play hooky and they took me fishing and I caught this big string of crappies, or croppies as we call them in the South, and conceived a passion that grips me to this day.
LAMB: Let's move across the page over here to what looks like -- I think your sons. Let me move -- I'll just move over, it'd be easier.
LAMB: Right up here. See if we can get -- the cameras are remote-controlled so...
LAMB: ... so it's hard to move them. Right there. Now who are these two gentlemen?
RAINES: Those are my sons -- Ben on the left as I'm looking at it and Jeffrey on the right, when they were about 10 and 12, with their first fly rods on the Rapidan. Just to the left on the screen, you can see Ben at age three -- or actually he was age five then and Jeffrey, who's out of the picture in that shot, was three -- fishing in Tampa Bay. So these boys started young and they're my best fishing buddies.
LAMB: Who's that right there?
RAINES: That's me at about, oh, age 33 I think. Didn't have any grey hair then.
LAMB: What do you do for a living full-time?
RAINES: I'm the editorial page editor of The New York Times. I've been a newspaperman since I was 21 years old, so that's going up on 30 years now this September.
LAMB: How long have you been editor of the editorial page?
RAINES: I've been editor of the editorial page about 14 months, 15 months now.
LAMB: What do you think of the job?
RAINES: It's a great job. It's...
RAINES: For several reasons. One, The New York Times is a great place to work for somebody like me who's been in the newspaper business all our life, been with The Times for 15 years, and it's a place where you can do journalism the way it ought to be done in the textbook sense. This job is particularly good because after 27 years or so in the newsroom, where you're constantly driven by events and hooked to the clock, it's nice to have a job where you can sit back and think a bit. And so I'm -- I had never written an editorial until January 1st of last year. And I've enjoyed it a lot.
LAMB: What's your biggest surprise about editorial writing?
RAINES: At how many people read the editorial page with microscopic attention. Perhaps I shouldn't confess this, but like many newspapermen and women, in the newsroom, where you're dealing with news stories, you often don't read the editorial page as devotedly as people outside the newspaper. That may strike people as strange but it's the case. I had never been a student of editorials and so it was -- there's nothing better than having something new in your life. At midlife that's one of the things I enjoyed about fly fishing. It was a new adventure. And this editorial writing was a new intellectual adventure for me.
LAMB: Early in the book you say: "Then one day in the summer of 1981 I found myself at L.L. Bean's in Freeport, Maine. I was a correspondent at the White House in those days. And my work, which consisted of reporting on President Reagan's success in making life harder for citizens who are not born rich, white and healthy saddened me." How come?
RAINES: Well, the Reagan years were very exciting. I covered the Reagan campaign and then covered the White House in the first 18 months of the Reagan presidency. And I was profoundly affected by two things: the dismantling of the civil rights division in the Justice Department, which I knew, as a Southerner, had done great work in changing the quality of life in my region and so I was distressed by the complete roll back of concern for minority rights as evidenced in the appointment of Brad Reynolds to head that division -- really to put it out of business, and also by the dismantling of what the Reagan people called the social safety net, I think. But it was a brutal time in terms of how we care about the disadvantaged people in our society. And I thought it coarsened the quality of our society. And in this book I do something that I was not able to do in my journalism and that is to put my personal opinion in. And I was really affected by what I saw in the early years of the Reagan White House.
LAMB: Same paragraph you say: "In fact, hanging around with the Reagan crowd made me yearn for connection with something noble and uplifting. I bought a fly rod."
RAINES: Yeah. The idea of nobility, I think, is an important one in politics and one of the anomalies of the Reagan years was President Reagan himself as genial a person as one could want, and I think at bottom a caring person. But I didn't see much to admire in the quality of caring in that administration. Now the connection I'm trying to make with the fly rod there is that I found the kind of satisfaction in a sport that had an aesthetic component, and it involved living in a kind of general caring relationship with nature.
The trout is a very fragile creature. They're not very bright. They're easy to catch, unless you give them tremendous advantages -- fishing with a tiny rod and a tiny fly that doesn't really have the appeal of a worm, a nice juicy worm. So those are some of the ideas of the nobility I suppose I was playing with there.
LAMB: What does it mean being a fly fisherman?
RAINES: Well, fly-fishing is a sport that has its roots in the 15th century in Britain. It has the most extensive literature of any field sport and it means that, nowadays, fishing with a very light and delicate rod and casting a line. The line is what you cast, not the lure. The weight of the lure in surf casting, for example, carries the cast forward. In fly-fishing you have to throw the line and it carries with it this tiny, weightless fly. I say that's the mechanics of fly-fishing. The aesthetics of it I think of this way: Fly-fishing is not the most efficient way to fish. It is as ballet is to walking. It's simply the most beautiful way to do it. As ballet is the most beautiful way to move from one place to another, fly-fishing is the most beautiful way to fish.
LAMB: Any idea how many people in this country fly fish?
RAINES: Several million, and the statistics vary. If you talk about committed fly fishermen -- I've forgotten. The statistics are in the book -- probably a million or so, several million if you talk about people who do it from time to time.
LAMB: In the book -- it should pop up here on the screen in a moment -- you've got some flies. Is that what they look like?
RAINES: That's what they look like and I'm very proud of those because I drew those. I'm really more vain about those drawings in a way than I am about the words. Not that I think that they're such artistically wonderful things, but I was just thrilled that I was able to pull it off. The creature with the delicate wings and the Y-shaped tail on the left is the mayfly and that is the fly -- the insect that is most often imitated. The fly below it is called an Adams, and that's the Ford or the Chevrolet of the fly-fishing flies. It's sort of the basic fly that everyone starts with.
LAMB: What's it cost to go fly-fishing?
RAINES: It's a lot like anything else. I could take you over to Orvis -- or Orvis Angler down the street here and outfit you probably for as little as 200 bucks. But by the time we got through giving you the sales pitch, you could spend as much as $1,000 or so to get your basic outfitting. But you can get started with very good equipment for a couple hundred dollars.
LAMB: One of the things about this book that you notice right away is that it's an odd shape. And it's long and thin. What's the thought there?
RAINES: That was actually my editor's idea, Harvey Ginsburg at Morrow. And it's an idea in the publishing world that books that are a little non-standard -- it's not a novel, it's not a classical autobiography -- have a kind of non-standard shape. I was a little put off by it, frankly, at first, but I've come to really like it and I think people enjoy handling it and it's easy to read.
LAMB: When did you first publish this book?
RAINES: This book was published in September of 1993.
LAMB: Where was that picture taken?
RAINES: The picture was taken on the Rapidan River about a year ago. That's me in the middle of the Rapidan with my glasses on, which is the only way I can see a fly these days. I often say, "I wish I had started fly-fishing before my eyes went." Young eyes are an advantage in that sport.
LAMB: How many presidents have you been fly-fishing with?
RAINES: Well, I've not been fly-fishing with any. President Bush took me bass fishing on the Potomac and we had quite a nice day. It was a terribly cold day and we were dressed very lightly and one of the things that I decided to write about was the protocol problem involved in being with the president under conditions that make you worry about his health. So if he's been nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule to invite you somewhere, should you say, "Mr. President, I don't think you ought to be out here when it's this cold. Why don't we go back and have a cup of tea?"
He's a very dedicated fisherman. He really sticks with it. And he's a good caster. We
were casting with bait-casting rods. He's quite a good fisherman with standard tackle. He makes no claims about fly-fishing. He's fly fished a bit. He takes a kidding that's somewhat unfair in my view about his sometimes having bad luck. All fisherman have bad luck, but when you're president of the United States and you go to Kennebunkport and don't catch a bluefish, you know, it becomes a matter of jokes and so forth.
But some fellow who studies the chemistry of fishing came up with the idea that President Bush has on his skin in large quantity a chemical that's common to all skin, called elcerine. And this fellow's theory is that, whenever fish smell a bait that's been touched with skin that has that chemical, they go the other way. I don't know if that's true. I'm pleased to report President Bush caught a fish the day we went.
LAMB: How do you get a president to go fishing with you?
RAINES: Well, in this case, I wrote him a letter and said I was doing this book and part of it was going to be about the intersection of fishing and politics and I would be pleased -- and I requested an interview, really. And he wrote back a very nice letter saying that he knew the subject was fly-fishing, and I had seen a photograph of him fly-fishing, videotape actually, and he casts rather well. So I was a little surprised when I found out that he was a novice. But in any event, he said he'd be happy to talk to me about other kinds of fishing and he wound up inviting me to go fishing on the Potomac with him.
LAMB: Why do you think he did that?
RAINES: Oh, very possibly because I was a reporter and it was an election year coming up. But...
LAMB: Did he know when the book was going to come out?
RAINES: No. I mean, well, roughly, but he knew it would be after the election.
LAMB: Did you talk politics while you were out?
RAINES: No, we didn't. We talked fishing. And I think he was not eager to talk politics and I didn't feel a particular need to. I was more interested in the fishing experience than I was the political part of it.
LAMB: You've got a chapter here -- 33, George, Jimmy and Herbert.
RAINES: Yes. Herbert Hoover, of course, is -- a lot of my Republican friends feel I was too hard on Herbert Hoover in this book. Hoover, of course, was not a popular president in Alabama, where I'm from. Alabama was hardest hit of almost any state by the Depression. So I had a lot of fun with the conceit of fishing in Herbert Hoover's stream, which was the Rapidan.
At one time, when he was president, the upper reaches were exclusively reserved for Hoover. He owned about 160 acres on the stream which are now part of the Shenandoah National Park. But I thought the disconnection between Hoover's personal qualities -- he was a man who cared about the environment; he had a spiritual side -- and his economic policies which were, simply, if you came from the South, you know, let them go hungry until the times improve. I was interested in how one personality could encompass these kind of opposed traits. And so that's the Hoover part of that -- President Bush being George and President Carter being Jimmy. And so that chapter talks some about politics and fishing.
LAMB: You said, "I think history will remember both," meaning Herbert Hoover and George Bush, "as well-meaning men who did not understand that the president must be an active guardian of the people's welfare, more attuned in hard times to the suffering of the poor than to guarding the economic pieties by which the wealth of their class is preserved." Did you worry at all when writing this book that maybe the people that are fly fishermen that would pick this book up might not like your politics?
RAINES: No, I didn't worry about it. And I'll tell you why. I wanted to write a book that was very personal and that was about me and in which I did not edit out the parts of my opinions that I had rigorously kept out of my work as a journalist. One of the things that I think we in journalism have not done a good job of is educating our consumers about -- and it's our fault, not theirs -- is that what we do is an intellectual discipline. And we do have opinions, but part of the professional craft of journalism is separating opinion from non-opinion journalism. I do opinion journalism now. I don't simply exercise my personal opinion. Institutionally, my job is to form opinion that speaks for The New York Times. But I felt free in this book to explore my own political opinions. And I think that part of every personality is how you come to form your politics.
Back to your original question, did I worry that other fly fisherman would be offended? No. I mean, if they were, they were. I've had a few letters that took issue with me, but most people seemed to be able to handle ideas that are not exactly their own.
LAMB: Any idea what the politics are of the several million fly fishermen?
RAINES: Oh, I would suspect they're fairly conservative. They tend to be older, affluent white males, and so I would guess that the breakdown probably tends toward conservatism, to some degree. One of the interesting things about the demographics of politics now, though -- I'm sorry, the demographics of fly-fishing -- is that women are coming into the sport in great numbers.
The Orvis Fly Fishing School in Vermont, for example, has statistics on women making up one of the larger portions of their student bodies. And they tend to be getting into the sport at a younger age than men, and not simply to be fishing with their husbands and boyfriends. So I think that's going to be healthy for fly-fishing. I don't mean to say it's going to change the political profile, but I think it's going to change sort of the men's-club ethos of the sport. I think that's good.
Not all fly-fishing men agree with that. There have been a few articles in the fly-fishing magazines, one of which I ridicule in this book, by a fellow very grumpy about seeing what he called "yuppie fly fishermen" -- that is, younger men and women out on the streams because there is a feeling in fly-fishing that it's sort of an exclusive fraternity, and some people would like to keep it exclusive. But I think the joy of the sport -- and that's one of the reasons that I wrote this book -- is sharing it. I shared it with my sons. Dick Blalock shared it with me. It was an important friendship in my life. And I think one of the things I wanted to do in this book was demystify it. We tend to surround it with jargon about the flies and so forth and it's pretty simple stuff. And so one of my chapters is about how simple it is and how the basics are pretty easy to grasp.
LAMB: Where's your family today?
RAINES: My sons are both in Louisiana. My older son is finished college and he's writing a book and doing the starving writer routine, and New Orleans is a great place to do that. And my younger son is still in college, and he plays in a rock band and goes to school in his spare time, I think. They're both ardent fishermen. They're just back from a nine-day trip down in the Louisiana bayous, so they told me today.
LAMB: When was the last time you went fishing together?
RAINES: We fished together in the fall and I'm going down in a few weeks to spend a week with them. We like to fly fish in salt water. We do a lot of that these days.
LAMB: You write in here about the dissolution of your marriage. When did that happen?
RAINES: 1990, I believe. I was in the course of writing the book. I didn't anticipate that at the time, but I was writing an autobiographical book and I felt that I couldn't fairly leave out that kind of major event, particularly if you're writing about the midlife passage, because divorce is a part of that experience for many people. It turned out to be me.
Some of the critics have faulted me for not telling more of the details of that. And I'm willing to take that criticism. I'm pleased with the way I handled it in the book because I wanted to try to sketch some things in life without necessarily drawing them in stark crayon, and I hope I succeeded in doing that.
LAMB: Did I read correctly that the beginnings of the end of the marriage was watching the movie "Moonstruck," -- or did I overdo that -- in London?
RAINES: Yeah. It was maybe less central to the marriage than to what for me was a central issue of midlife, which was coming to grips with one's own mortality. And I write a good bit about that. I come from a death-denying family. I say that with affection. And one of the reasons is we tend to live a long time and so we don't have a lot of experience with it.
And in "Moonstruck" there's a wonderful line where Olympia Dukakis asks Danny Aiello why men run around. And he says he doesn't know; maybe it's because they fear death. And she says, "That's it, you've got it." He immediately becomes terrified that he's actually said something important and he says, "I don't know anything, I'm just talking." And she says, "No. That's it."
In that case they were talking about adultery, but it's the idea doesn't have to do simply with that. It has to do with the whole pattern of unsettlement, depression, sometimes erratic behavior in midlife. I think for many men, particularly, it has to do with the passage of youth and the acceptance of the idea that you're going to die. So that was what I was trying to deal with in that part of the book.
LAMB: You wrote a sentence down as follows, "It's a good day to die" and put it by your telephone or whatever in your office. When did you do that and why did you mention it in the book?
RAINES: Well, again, I thought, if you're going to write a personal book you have an obligation to the reader to be candid about all of your emotions, including the ones that are not particularly pleasant, in this case fear. The -- "It is a good day to die" was the battle cry of the dog soldiers of the Cheyenne tribe of Plains Indians.
The dog soldiers were the most feared fighters on the Plains. And their power came from their embracing of death as central to combat. "It is a good day to die" is not about fatalism; it's about a celebration of life and doing what one is put in the world to do. In the dog soldiers' case, that was to make war. So the joyfulness of that, the affirmation of it, made them both powerful and admired.
I don't identify this person in the book, but I found, at one point in my career, that I was fearful of someone that I dealt with.
LAMB: In the Washington bureau?
RAINES: It was when I was in the Washington bureau of The Times. And so every morning -- and this, as I say, it had nothing to do with the person who had dealt me, dealt with me in a very friendly and honorable way. But in a competitive environment sometimes you do, you know, you may find yourself being intimidated. So every morning, when I came in, before I talked to this person, I wrote, "It is a good day to die," on a Stick 'Em and put it by my telephone. And it worked.
LAMB: Do you still do it?
RAINES: No, I don't do it anymore.
LAMB: When did you stop doing it?
RAINES: Oh, I can't -- it wasn't a long time. But it was an important lesson for me and it was connected with a larger point. It was during the time when I was working out the whole business about death and mortality. And I don't take this as a general universal law, any more than I think every midlife crisis has to encompass divorce. I don't say that every midlife crisis is about mortality. I know mine was. And I think that's a common experience, and I would say to anyone who's going through this period of their lives, particularly men, that you need to look at that issue very carefully, because a lot of people have had the kinds of experiences that I have.
I should say, by the way, that this book has been bought by a lot of women and it's not a man's book. It's written from a man's point of view, but I think women have a similar passage. I don't write about it much because I'm not authoritative about it. It's not part of my experience. But I know from the literature on the subject, from Gail Sheehy and Germaine Greer and others, that there's some connections in there. And I found reading women writers, particularly "Women Who Run With Wolves" by Dr. Estes very helpful in forming that part of the book. And I've been pleased with the number of women that I've heard from, who have bought the book for their husbands, fathers and so forth.
LAMB: Did you ever aspire to be editorial page editor of The New York Times?
RAINES: No. I have a completely accidental career. I aspired, I think, to be Robert Penn Warren -- that is, a scholarly Southern novelist. And I've written one novel and I want to do some more before I hang it up. And I may do a novel next, in fact.
One of the things that I wanted to do with this book was to see if I could write a book while I was carrying on my daily life as a newspaperman on The New York Times. And I think I figured out kind of how to balance those. But I really got into newspapering at the age of 21, in my hometown in Birmingham, accidentally. I didn't know how to type. I often tell the story to my friends that I was hired -- and I know I forgot to mention that I could not type to the man who hired me. And I walked down the street to a bookstore owned by a woman I knew, a schoolteacher who'd taught me and my brother and sister. And I said, "Miss Anna, I need a typing book." And she took me back to the back of this bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1964, and there was an orange book and the title was "How To Type In 24 Hours." And I said, "I'll take that one."
And I often say that that was my karmic moment, that I should have known then I was destined to be trapped by newspapering, when I saw that book when I needed it so. But as a newspaperman, I simply moved every time somebody offered me an interesting or, frankly, better-paying job. The New York Times is my sixth newspaper. It's the only one I ever worked for for more than three years.
LAMB: Where were the other five?
RAINES: Birmingham Post-Herald, Tuscaloosa News, Birmingham News, Atlanta Constitution, where I was political editor, Saint Petersburg Times, where I was political editor, and then I came to The Times in 1978.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
RAINES: I went to Birmingham-Southern College, majored in English. They didn't have a journalism department. Never worked for the college paper. And I have a masters degree in English in from the University of Alabama as well, in Tuscaloosa.
LAMB: Can close readers of The New York Times editorial page ever see your writing?
RAINES: Some people who know my style say that they can.
LAMB: How many people write editorials for The Times?
RAINES: We have an editorial board of 15 people and we have specialists in economics, foreign policy, science and so forth. And it's a very diverse, very interesting group of people, some of them academics by background, some of them journalists by background.
LAMB: How often do you write?
RAINES: I like to write at least twice a week and I'd like to write more, actually, but I try to write at least two pieces a week.
LAMB: In preparation for this program, I've had more than one person who knew that I was going to interview you who wanted to know, "Why are you so tough on President Clinton?"
RAINES: Well, that's the same question we get from the White House, sometimes. A couple of answers: one, I don't conceive of us as being self-consciously tough on anyone. We have a set of values that we stand for and that we advocate. And I think, particularly if you've endorsed someone, as The New York Times did in the election, you have to frame your editorial advice in terms of what will make them successful. And so one of the reasons that we have had a lot to say on certain issues is that we have, in our judgment, seen them doing things that we thought were not going to lead to the political and policy success of the administration. And I think it doesn't make sense to endorse someone and then sort of watch them go down a path that you think is going to be harmful. So that's sort of the animating idea behind our Clinton editorials.
LAMB: I've got an editorial from the first part of March. And here's one line, "His administration is easily the most reckless and interfering with the integrity of federal investigative agencies since that of Richard Nixon." And then you go on to write: "All this paints a picture of a White House dedicated to short-cutting justice, if that is what it takes to shield the financial affairs of Mr. Clinton and his wife and their friends from scrutiny," and you finish it, "Of course, punishing the incompetent and asserting firm conflict of interest principles requires a president who is dedicated to even-handed justice, and so far there is scant evidence of those qualities." Any chance that you wrote that?
RAINES: Well, our official policy is not to identify our editorials by writers, so I'll simply say that as the editorial page editor I'm responsible for it.
LAMB: Do you feel -- I mean, those words are, I would assume you would agree, are strong.
RAINES: They are strong, yes.
LAMB: And you say that the White House doesn't like that kind of stuff. Do they complain directly to you?
RAINES: I don't hear from them directly very much, but I hear from them, you know, indirectly. I mean, why would they like that? They've set out on another course on this and this is clearly urging them in a different direction.
But, you know, the point that I tried to make with this editorial is when you've got an administration that starts out by calling the FBI to come put out a press release criticizing career employees of the White House Travel Office, and then goes through a series of events, including having the president's closest friend as a kind of political control officer at the Justice Department, and having the kind of back and forth between the Resolution Trust Corporation and the White House staff that we've seen --
that's a level of meddling with the investigative independence of federal agencies that I think is simply wrong. And I think it's very alarming, and so that's the reason that we use such strong language there. And I think events have borne us out.
I mean, a lot of what is called Whitewater has had to do with attempts to reach into the the Treasury Department, to reach into the Resolution Trust Corporation, and find out information that's not proper for someone who's being investigated to ask of the agencies who are doing the investigating.
LAMB: Back to the book and again, I wonder if there's any parallels here. This is Chapter Six, The Kiss Of Time. You say, "I was 38," and you'd arrived in Washington, Ronald Reagan was the president. You said, "My parents raised me to admire generosity and to feel pity. I had arrived in our nation's capital during a historic ascendancy of greed and hardheartedness."
RAINES: Well, you know, the Reagan years, the '80s, were very interesting to me because, in looking back on it, I realize one of the things that happened is that the Reagan administration succeeded in convincing the affluent people in this country that they were embattled and under threat. And the reality is that life is good for affluent people in this society and it will always be. Life is hard for the poor and it's pretty hard for a lot of working people.
And so this false sense of embattlement, I think, has been a very harmful force in American life over the past 10 years. The people who have a lot getting whipped into some kind of frenzy of anxiety over the idea that someone is going to take it away from them. So the whole idea, I think, led to a coarsening of traditional American concern for the uneducated, the unhealthy and the impoverished.
LAMB: Some of the conservatives' editorials -- papers through this time have referred to the Clinton administration as being full of hypocrites. Are you saying the same thing?
RAINES: No. I really don't see that as connecting. I mean, you're referring, I suppose, to the idea of Mrs. Clinton investing in the commodities market. I don't really buy into that. I think there's some problems in that activity that are, you know, probably going to be looked into, but I don't see it as a character test.
LAMB: Let me ask it a different way. Based on some of the critical editorials you've had of the Clinton administration, what's it going to take for the 15 members of your editorial group to turn around and say, "This is the kind of president I want -- a president who believes in justice and fairness?"
RAINES: Well, I mean, we will, through the course of events over the -- I think we will see the laying out of full information about Whitewater and the associated things and we'll simply, like the rest of the country, have to judge that based on what we see. Now on the policy side, our highest priority is health care, and I think that if this president comes out of Washington, however long he stays there, with a national health-care system in place, that's a historic accomplishment and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that.
LAMB: What would you think he'd be like out there fly-fishing?
RAINES: Well, I don't know. I had never thought about that. I don't know that I can venture a guess. I don't think he's had much exposure to fishing. Some of the people around him are ardent fly fishers, particularly Bob Rubin, the economic adviser, someone I've talked fly fishing with. We've told tall tales to one another.
LAMB: I mean, is there something right away that you can tell about somebody when you meet them, whether they've ever been fly-fishing or not? Is there a certain demeanor they have or a certain interest?
RAINES: Well, we like to kid -- we like to tell ourselves that we're contemplative and introspective, and I'm not sure that's true. I mean, my friend, Dick Blalock, whose picture you showed earlier, was one of the most gregarious men I've ever known. And he liked to sit on a rock by the side of the stream and talk to you while you were fishing as much as he liked to fish.
LAMB: I want to quote you something that Mr. Blalock said.
LAMB: By the way, he died in the middle of all this?
RAINES: Yes, Dick passed away.
LAMB: What year?
RAINES: Two years ago, 1992.
LAMB: And was it in the middle of your writing this thing?
RAINES: It was, yes.
LAMB: What did he die of?
RAINES: Heart failure.
LAMB: Did it surprise you? I mean, what kind of condition was he in?
RAINES: You know, that's a very interesting question. Dick had had a history of health problems and he didn't take good care of himself, but it did surprise me, I have to say, and it affected me profoundly, one reason being that it's fairly rare in life, Brian, to make a deep friendship in midlife or later life. I mean, typically our friends are people we grew up with or went to college with or knew early in our careers or we're related through family in some way. So it's a great blessing to meet someone, I felt, in my 40s, with whom I formed a deep and important friendship. And I was sorry to lose it. I really was.
LAMB: Let me quote you one of his -- actually, maybe this is not a quote from him. I'll read it, anyway; you'll recognize it.
LAMB: "One of the risks you took in fishing with strangers in the '80s was that you could find yourself in the woods with evangelical Republicans. And if you're in my line of work, that almost always led to them pressing you about whether Reagan wasn't really, quote, "A lot smarter than you guys in the press give him credit for,' unquote. Dick, on the other hand seemed to have the kind of cheerful, hopelessness that was appropriate to the state of his party."
RAINES: Yeah. Dick was an ardent Democrat and, of course, in the '80s, when most of our friendship took place, the Democrats were in such profound disarray that it looked as if the party would never come back. I was being a little prankish there, needling the Republicans. I should say, in fact, that I come from a bipartisan background. My family in Alabama is from the Republican part of the state that was loyal to the Union during the Civil War, so I have deep Republican roots. And, like many people from that background, became disenchanted with the Republican Party because of their behavior during the civil rights era. They tried to out-Wallace Wallace on segregation. So I'm being a little prankish there, actually.
LAMB: Another thing that you mentioned earlier, and I'm trying to find it because I underlined it, was homosexuality and the whole story about men being together alone, out fly-fishing.Why did you bring that up? What's...
RAINES: Well, because I was dealing with the Hemingway myth of, you know, of the best part of masculine life being that which is done by men alone out in the woods. And also because there's a fair body of literary criticism that raises the question of why so much American literature is like "Moby Dick" or the "Bear" or "Huck Finn," which is about guys off together. So I thought it was an interesting area to kind of write about.
LAMB: You have to check my memory on this, but I think you admitted somewhere in this book to not believing in God anymore. Is that right?
RAINES: Possibly, yeah. I'm probably one of those guys who's going to be praying furiously at the end, but I think what actually I said was that I was ruined for church by early exposure to preachers.
LAMB: Actually, I think it's the first line of the whole book. Yes.
RAINES: It's the first line of the book.
LAMB: And what did you mean by that?
RAINES: Well, I grew up in a part of the country where there was a great emphasis on legalistic religion: Don't dance, don't smoke, don't kiss, no mixed bathing. I mean, all this stuff with Christian fundamentalism in the South was very powerful when I came along. And I suppose I was influenced mightily by the complete failure of the white church to deal with the racial issue. And I came of age during the civil rights movement, and it seemed to me, as an Alabamian, that it's so manifestly wrong for the churches not to be providing moral leadership and turning states like Alabama over to the rantings of a guy like George Wallace, that I became very disenchanted with institutional religion of the sort I grew up with.
But as I get older -- as I say here -- occasionally I need to hear the sigh of the eternal and that's part of what I get out of being out in the world of nature. You know, it's possible to feel reverent without having a specific theological idea, and I suppose that's sort of where I am these days.
LAMB: Where did you write this book?
RAINES: I started this book in Italy, actually. I spent a month in Italy in the fall of 1991, and wrote what became about the first 10 chapters.
LAMB: Is this the Rockefeller underwriting...
RAINES: Yes. The Rockefeller Foundation has a study center called Bellaggio on Lake Como. It's a beautiful place. And they award scholars and writers and artists and musicians who have a project -- you apply to them and if they think it's a worthy project they give you a month's residency, where they simply provide you with a place to sleep and access to their cafe -- you know, food services and an office. And you just go there and work. And a lot of people have done a lot of interesting work there.
LAMB: Why does the Rockefeller Foundation have a place in Italy?
RAINES: The woman whose family owned Hiram Walker whiskey -- I believe I have the right brand there -- was married to an Italian nobleman who had a wonderful villa on Lake Como. She inherited it, and at the end of her life she had no one to pass it on to, and wanted to see it maintained and serve a useful purpose, so she gave it to the Rockefeller Foundation, to be used as a non-profit study center for scholars from around the world.
LAMB: You dedicate this book to, "My brother, Jerry W. Raines, who was born knowing where fish live and what they want." Where is he?
RAINES: He's in Birmingham. He's probably just back from a fishing trip as we speak. My brother's 10 years older than I, and the first fly rod I ever saw belonged to him and I closed the door on it and broke it. And he is a great intuitive fisherman. There are two kinds of fishermen -- fishers, I should say, women as well as men -- those who have a kind of a natural intuitive, artistic sense of it, and those who kind of learn it mechanically. And it's a kind of sixth sense. And my brother is one of those great intuitive fishermen. I'm not. I kind of have to do it by the numbers, but you can get pretty good at that, too.
LAMB: What time of day do you like to write?
LAMB: How early?
RAINES: As early as I can get up, comfortably.
LAMB: Five AM or noon?
RAINES: No. Actually, when I was younger, my first two books I did by getting up at five and even some more atrocious hours, and working three hours before I went to the newspaper. But as I've gotten older I find that hard to do, so I work on weekends a lot. But the morning hours are my hours of ... with writers, as a general rule, when writers are in full production they have about four hours of good composition time a day. And it's just a matter of when your unconscious mind is pushing stuff forward, as to when you work. Some people work late at night, some in the afternoon, some in the morning. For me, over the years I've sort of trained myself -- as that's when I can access the creative imagination, and that's very important for a writer to learn, when his or her unconscious is going to offer up whatever's in there.
LAMB: What about the writing of editorials? When do you do that?
RAINES: I like to write journalism in the mornings, too.
LAMB: When do you decide what your editorials are going to be?
RAINES: Often I get the ideas when I'm reading the paper in the morning. That kind of stirs me and that's what I like to do. I like to read something that interests me and sort of starts the wheels turning while I'm shaving and riding the subway to work and if I'm really cooking, by the time I get there and get everything kind of taken care of, I'll sit down. I write pretty fast once I start. And an editorial is fairly easy to write, in terms of the mechanics of journalism. Typically, you don't have to do as much calling and interviewing as you would as a reporter, because somebody's done the work for you. You may want to do some fill-in research, because you want to be right, but the heavy lifting has been done for you. And they're short. I mean, the piece you have there is probably 600 words. Well, in The Times, a typical news story would be more like 900 words or maybe as much as 1,500. So this is a pretty compressed form. And I also find that if you kind of do it at one sitting, it tends to have a kind of organic unity to it.
LAMB: What's the make up of the 15-member editorial board in male-female, black-white...
RAINES: We have, of the 15 people, I think five are women and two are minorities. So it's, you know, like a lot of journalistic institutions -- white male majority, but not the domination that you would see in years past.
LAMB: Do you have the last word?
RAINES: It's my responsibility to do that, yeah. What being editorial page editor means is that the publisher has charged you with the responsibility of speaking for the paper. And we have collegial discussions, but at the end of the day, if your name is on the masthead, you're responsible for what goes in and so, yeah, I do have the last word, but it's not something that I revel in, in a kind of autocratic way. But there are moments when you may find a great body of opinion going one way that you think is wrong, or you may have a kind of even split and have to arbitrate it. And I don't shy from doing that.
LAMB: I don't know if this can be answered, but is there some kind of an unofficial mechanism that tells you that your editorial for that day or your editorial page has touched a nerve out there? I mean, is there somebody that always calls you or somebody you run into every day and you say, "We got to them today. They're paying attention?"
RAINES: No. Not in the sense of, you know, you want to think of putting a pin in someone and making them squeal.
LAMB: I didn't mean it -- let me re-ask that. n any given day, I mean, in your pattern of living, do you know when you've gotten people's attention vs. the one that's just a kind of another day? Is there somebody that always calls you -- a personal friend or somebody -- that says, "Well, you did it this morning?"
RAINES: No. No one person, but you can kind of -- one's journalistic colleagues are an important part of that process but, you know, it's a little like Hemingway, I think it was, who used to say of the literary critics, "If you believe them when they say you're good, you've got to believe them when they say you're bad." And I think it's very important to try to train yourself to do what you think is right, to do the best journalism that you can do and not be driven too much one way or another by the praise or condemnation. I mean, frankly, in this job you get a lot more expressions o disagreement than agreement, and so it's important to have a core of values and principles that you're going to stand for, and not get knocked off the page one way or another by praise or criticism.
LAMB: At the same time we're taping this show with you we're taping also one with Pete Hamil. And the reason I bring it up is because both of you talk about Ernest Hemingway throughout your entire book. Why? What is it that got your attention over the years about Hemingway?
RAINES: Well, for me it was the purity of the language and the idea of thinking about the language in such a direct, powerful and original way. And also probably something that's unique to me: If you're a Southerner, the great thing you have to do to define yourself as a writer is make sure you don't wind up as a Faulkner imitator. Because Faulkner is so powerful and he writes the way we talk -- particularly the way we talk after we've had a shot of bourbon -- that if you let yourself plunge down that Faulknerian road, you're going to wind up as kind of a voice in the Faulkner choir. So for me, I was drawn to Hemingway almost because it was like an astringent discipline to kind of offset the Faulknerian tendency that kind of comes with breeding in the South.
LAMB: Any other writers that you admire?
RAINES: Well, the greatest influence, probably, on my writing in my mature years s Yeats, I mean, the poetry of Yeats. I'm not a poet, but what you can learn from the study of Yeats' poetry, if you're interested -- and the language is very powerful. I keep the collected Yeats poems on the table in my office and I try to read one a day, or by now, re-read. But the magic of that language is very powerful and so that's been a great influence on me.
LAMB: You won a Pulitzer for what?
RAINES: I did an article about growing up in Birmingham and my friendship with a black woman named Grady Hutchinson who came to work in my home when I was 7 years old and she was 16. She came to work as a maid. And she's a person who's very dear to me so I wrote an article about that relationship.
LAMB: Your novel that you're thinking about writing will be about what?
RAINES: Either it'll be about the '60s, whether it's about the 1860s or the 1960s, I haven't sorted out yet. I've got a series of novels that I want to finish before I die, and I hope that's a long time. I hope I have enough time to get several of them done. But I haven't decided what order I'm going to do them in.
LAMB: The last editorial page editor of The New York Times was?
RAINES: Jack Rosenthal.
LAMB: And where did he go?
RAINES: He's the editor of The Times Magazine now.
LAMB: Do you have an ambition to go from where you are now to another job in that company, or do you dare say it here?
RAINES: No, I'd feel free to say it if I had it clearly in focus. If today the publisher said, "You can do anything you want to do," I think I'd like to have a column. But I would like to stick with this job long enough to feel that I have enjoyed it and also to -- I think, after I get more experience at this, that there may be some creative things to be done with editorials and editorial writing that I'd like to have an impact on.
LAMB: Over the years how many Southerners have been in your job -- very many?
RAINES: I think in the editorial page, none. I mean, there've been a number of Southerners on the paper -- Turner Catlidge, Tom Wicker, Clifton Daniel -- so there have always been a few Southerners on The Times.
LAMB: Do you bring something different to that page because you are a Southerner, in your opinion?
RAINES: I think that the idea of looking at American politics from a regional perspective has some influence, yeah. I'll give you an example, and it may be a petty one: gasoline tax, of course, is a perennial revenue measure. Well, if you're from out in the country and you know what a 50-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax means to the carpenter in Idaho who drives 100 miles to work or the farmer in Alabama who's running tractors, it has a different feel than if you're in New York and you don't own a car. I don't a car now, so it's easy for me to say, "Let's tax gasoline." So it's that kind of a perspective, I think, that has some usefulness.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's called "Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis." The author is editorial page editor of The New York Times, Howell Raines. Thank you very much for joining us.
RAINES: Thank you, Brian. I had a good time.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1996. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.