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Race and Powerful
on February 24, 2010
I was deeply absorbed by this book. It is a revealing portrait of a talented and troubled man, a newspaper journalist who succeeded, whose ambition ate at him, and who retained a touching humanity perhaps half of his time at the top. He ultimately fell victim, both to unlucky timing and to the blindness that can come with ambition.
My views are subjective. I knew Gerald Boyd. I am one of many hundreds of journalists who worked with him and, in my case, had him as a boss when he was the editor of Metro section of the New York Times, where I was a reporter. I thought he was an uneven leader. He could be insightful, intimidating, charming, instructive, rudely dismissive, and also a bestower of tough love. His positive attributes rained on me when I was in favor with more senior editors, and his negatives came when I stumbled. I was not one of his favorite reporters, but I had my moments. I was in the middling crowd, those who needed better guidance from him. And yet the limited guidance he did give, when he spoke honestly and even tenderly to me, was among the most effective I ever got.
His personal story is remarkable. It is one thing to hear vaguely, as we all did on the Metro desk, that he was raised poor in East St. Louis. It is quite another to read about what it was like to go to his mother's funeral at age 3, to go hungry, to use his smarts and charm, leavened by his innate caution and fear, to see chances and make the most of them.
Race is a steadily undulating theme in this book. Boyd describes his growing consciousness, as a child, of black and white worlds of St. Louis. His militant episodes at college, when he changed his name to "Uganda X" are a comic backdrop for his constructive activism there. His entry to the NYT and the racism he endured there is arresting. Editors look at his clips and ask, "Did you really write these yourself?" When he prepares for a new assignment, editors ask: "Do you think you can handle this?"
Boyd was not a great writer. This book is direct, almost workmanlike in places. It doesn't matter. It's a strong story. How he made it through school, to a newspaper, through college, to covering Washington, to succeeding in the NYT newsroom - it's a compelling tale. The holes and shortcomings are revealing. He admits having difficulty trusting anyone, but wonders why he has few friends. He torches wife #2 for dragging him to couples therapy, but later acknowledges how essential therapy was for his maturity and judgment.
The real juice, for those of us who care about the Times, comes in the section of the book covering his rise to the top during the Howell Raines era. For all Boyd's talent and smarts, for all his ability to navigate politically choppy waters, for all his relentless determination to succeed, he is at last hobbled by his ambition and defensiveness. When Raines names Boyd to be managing editor, effectively number two in the newsroom, it seems a crowning achievement. But it is virtually an impossible job. Raines emerges as a megalomaniac, and Boyd can only go along as Raines's psychotic schemes inevitably bleed the paper's correspondents and desk editors, undercutting their integrity and morale. It's painful to read Boyd's descriptions of trying, and failing, to provide any balance to Raines's autocratic mismanagement. When the Jason Blair incident unfolds, it opens up the cauldron of resentment among the NYT staff, and Boyd reveals a sorry lack of understanding of why the revolution came. Boyd professes to believe in the Raines mission to heighten the paper's "metabolism", but it's clear that Boyd's own advancement was so identified with it that he had no useful perspective on its glaring failures. Even though he himself chronicles Raines's shortfalls as an editor and leader, he is surprised that his reporters and editors are all so angry. Boyd becomes collateral damage, and doesn't get why no one speaks up to defend him.
Like many victims, Boyd cannot see the reality and instead identifies villains responsible for conspiring against him, Joe Lelyveld, Bill Keller, Jon Landman. His accusations against them ring hollow. It is deeply sad, after his telling and sensitive descriptions of the racism he endured throughout his life, when he lapses into a simplistic citing of racism as the cause of his fall. It is even more sad, after his devastating loss of his job and his sense of identity, when he finds partial solace in his wife and their young son, only to be diagnosed with lung cancer and to quickly succumb to it.
His wife, Robin Stone, says that she edited two unfinished manuscripts together, after Boyd died. I feel grateful to her, for not letting them sit unfinished, and for doing such a good job at editing, making them read as one coherent whole. Stone's afterward, where she describes some of her grief, is very moving. After I put the book down I tried to imagine what it might be like for Boyd's young son to read it once he has grown up. And I also wondered about all those others who worked with Boyd and who, like me, enjoyed his tenderness, endured his limitations, and admired his life.