How Saddam Brought Down the Mother of All Editors
How Saddam Brought Down the Mother of All Editors
By Dennis Hans
Sources within the New York Times say Howell Raines would still be executive editor if only he had refrained from pressuring publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to sign off on a major investigative story that, it turned out, simply was not fit to print.
When Raines first saw the piece — written in mid-May by Rick Bragg and based on reporting in April by Bragg, Judith Miller and a not-yet-exposed Jayson Blair — he told colleagues it was just what the Times needed to revitalize the paper and put the Blair scandal behind it. He now concedes that “visions of Pulitzers” and his anti-Augusta bias may have blinded him to defects that Sulzberger fortunately discovered before they could appear in print.
A Times insider leaked me a copy of the 3,000-word story. It’s gripping opening grafs are published here for the first time:
Saddam and His WMDs Take Refuge at Augusta:
Deposed dictator poised to strike foes of notorious men’s-only golf club
By Rick Bragg
(With Jayson Blair in Augusta and Judith Miller in Baghdad and Augusta)
AUGUSTA—Ten days after the final round of the Master’s Golf Tournament, Augusta National’s newest member faced the most difficult decision of his new life.
“Hard eight or easy seven?” he asked his playing partner.
“Go with the eight iron,” replied Tiger Woods. Only it wasn’t Mr. Woods. It was New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, posing as the cocksure golfing great.
Saddam soaked in the scenery — not just the blooming magnolias, but the beckoning pond and shimmering sand that stood between him and the 12th green. He took a puff on his Cuban stogie, tossed it to the ground and teed up a Titleist, the finest dimpled ball that Mississippi labor has ever produced. He uncorked his compact swing and produced a low draw that bored through the Georgia wind before landing softly behind the pin.
“Spin, baby, spin!” he cried. As if on cue, the ball checked up and spun back to within gimme distance. He high-fived his playing partner, then flashed the famous smile that 45 years ago won the heart of the raven-haired Tikriti beauty who would become his wife.
Two hours later, Saddam relaxed in the clubhouse with Master’s chairman Hootie Johnson and the man he thought was Tiger Woods. The courtly Johnson called out to the fetching young waitress he had hired the week before. “Judy, my dear, could you bring Tiger, my new best friend Mr. Hussein and myself a round of mint julips?”
Little did Mr. Johnson know that “Judy” was the Times award-winning correspondent, Judith Miller, who had spent half her adult life on the trail of Saddam and his arsenal of evil.
What she heard next sent shudders down her spine. She caught her breath and silently reminded herself who she was and why she was there.
“Saddam, ol’ buddy,” said Mr. Johnson, “how much would I have to pay you to turn a few of them weapons of mass destruction loose on Martha Burk? That old broad’s been pestering me to admit a woman member, and it just ain’t gonna happen.”
“My friend, given the hospitality you have extended my sons and me, I wouldn’t dream of charging you,” Mr. Hussein replied. “So rather than me naming a price, I shall simply ask you to pick your poison.”
“Well, I’d really like to take out that whole gaggle of protesters that’s stirrin’ up a ruckus each mornin’ outside the gates,” Mr. Johnson said. “What do you recommend?”
“A mustard gas and VX cocktail. I’ve got all the ingredients back at Butler Cabin. How’s about I mix up a batch after dinner?”
(End of article excerpt)
Raines showed a draft of the story to Sulzberger on May 22. The publisher was still reeling from the recent scandal, and he told Raines he would not authorize publication until he (Sulzberger) had verified every last fact. What Sulzberger discovered led directly to Raines’ dismissal:
Jayson Blair’s greens-fee receipt did indeed have Tiger Woods’ name on it, indicating he had pulled off his assigned deception. But the receipt was for Central Park Putt-Putt, a miniature golf course not far from Blair’s midtown apartment. His mustachioed playing companion wasn’t Saddam Hussein but Thomas Friedman. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist leaped to Blair’s defense, telling Sulzberger, “The day I read about those Iraqi mass graves was the day I concluded that Jayson was fully justified in making up stories about Saddam.”)
Rick Bragg acknowledged that the scenic descriptions were based on a 1983 Birmingham News story written under his byline by his nephew. But he also told Sulzberger this: “If you think I’m the only one in this building who’s offered a kid some hamhocks, black-eyed peas and a rickety old fishing pole to write a story for him, then you’re as naïve as a Tupelo tadpole.”
Only Judith Miller’s contribution withstood scrutiny. She told the publisher that while she hadn’t actually seen Saddam at Augusta, she did produce the phone number of a caddy who once carried Ahmed Chalabi’s bag at a Massachusetts golf course designed by the same architect who recently lengthened several of Augusta’s holes.
Sulzberger pronounced himself pleased with Miller’s explanation, thanked her for avoiding the ethical lapses that felled her colleagues, and placed her name on the short list for the executive editor post.
©2003 by Dennis Hans
- Bio: Dennis
Hans has published straight and bent essays in a variety of
publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post,
National Post (Canada) and online at TomPaine.com, Slate and
The Black World Today (tbwt.com), among other outlets. He
has taught courses in mass communications and American
foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St.
Petersburg, and can be reached at