Just recently I had a conversation that helped me understand certain items in the news which dealt with overreaction and escalation, two popular topics at this time in Washington. It was about women playing men's games, and it was with Mollie, my great niece. She is 16, leggy and elegant as the model she wishes to be. Meanwhile, she is a cheerleader and a straight-A student at Hanover High School in Massachusetts and works weekends at a flower shop.
I gasped when her father casually mentioned over supper the fact that she had been a linebacker. Our Mollie, the future cover girl? Yes. In the annual all-girl benefit game between Hanover's juniors and seniors, she did what linebackers do, except tackle -- they used flags instead. The tradition is for the seniors to win, and they did; but at a post-game party for the players, they turned out to be big-time sore winners. They locked the juniors in the party room and covered the doorknobs with Marshmallow Fluff.
"That's what happens when you play men's games," I said.
"You start acting like them. Next thing you know you'll want to bomb somebody."
All she had in mind, Mollie said, was to show that "we are strong, too."
Next morning the juniors struck back. They took the seniors' parking places. In retaliation the seniors smeared Tabasco sauce all over the juniors' cars.
My case, I thought, was made. "There, you see, macho behavior, petty, vindictive, vengeful -- next thing you know, you're dropping bombs and starting wars."
"No," said Mollie, "We know when to stop. They use bombs, we use Tabasco sauce."
It was an enlightening introduction to the current commotion in the newspaper world that was brought on by passions surrounding women's right to play men's games -- in this case, golf. At issue was a matter of seeming censorship in the New York Times. Columns by two sportswriters that differed with Times editorial policy had been killed. The Times had taken a strong stand on the importance of women being admitted to the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters tournament.
The term "imperial editor" springs to mind, except that the executive editor of the Times is Howell Raines, and he's far too smart to do anything that dumb.
Raines is an ornament to his trade. No one wrote more compellingly about the abridgment of civil rights in his native South. How could he curb free expression on his own paper? He wrote about that struggle in a book called "My Soul Is Rested."
One of my best memories is of riding with him and another colleague, Phil Gailey, a former Timesman now with the St. Petersburg Times, through gently falling snow from Boston to New Hampshire for a 1984 presidential debate at Dartmouth.
Howell told war stories from the civil rights battlefields and quoted Yeats. I was proud to know him.
When he was made executive editor of the Times last year, he was out to make a difference. He did. The Times' coverage of 9/ll brought it glory, seven Pulitzer Prizes and a new image as a newspaper with a heart -- mainly through publication of a remarkable series of "Portraits of Grief." They were utterly unlike the paper's usual starchy obituaries. They were warm and intimate, dwelling on details that showed each victim to be unique and irreplaceable. The majestic paper of record throbbed with hometown humanity.
Pride goeth. . . Hubris attacks newspapers in triumph. It happened to The Post after it unseated a president.
On Dec. 4 the Times was mortified into the ground when the New York Daily News published the sad tale of the Times' attempt to "speak with one voice," as the White House likes to say, about the Masters tournament.
Dave Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, took issue with a Times editorial that urged Tiger Woods to lead the protest against the exclusion of women from Augusta National by refusing to play. Anderson wrote that it wasn't Woods's fight and that he shouldn't be asked to do anything but play golf better than anyone else. Sportswriter Harvey Araton wrote that the agitation might have an adverse effect on women in the Olympics. Times Managing Editor Gerald Boyd said in a muddy statement that Araton's "logic doesn't meet our standards."
Both columns were printed in last Sunday's edition of the Times.
Howell Raines doesn't need me to tell him that an editor -- to use Mollie's metaphor -- who reaches for the bomb instead of the Tabasco sauce can end up with egg on his face. He has no comment at the moment. The only appropriate one might be one word: sorry.