But she refused to go quietly. When Raines brought Moscow bureau chief Patrick Tyler to D.C., apparently intending to move him into her slot, Abramson threw the newcomer a welcome party at Garfield Acres, recalls Todd S. Purdum, then a member of the bureau. “I admire her enormous fortitude under Howell,” says Purdum, who is now at Vanity Fair. “He was awful. He set out to brutalize her into quitting the Washington job. He claimed she was failing.” Abramson eventually did an end-run around the larger-than-life Raines, pleading her case directly to the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. She also garnered support from the Times’s then-CEO, Janet Robinson. The New Yorker, quoting an unnamed senior Times D.C. reporter about this period, characterized Abramson as a “ ‘black belt’ infighter.” Asked for her takeaway from that stressful period, she now says simply, “Appreciate friendship during rough times and stay focused” on the job at hand.
The 9/11 attacks occurred in the midst of this professional turmoil, and for Abramson, the following years were even more fraught. The lead-up to the Iraq War included an episode that she now wishes she had handled differently. One of the D.C. bureau’s reporters, Judith Miller, relying on Iraqi defectors and sources within the Bush administration, wrote front-page stories about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, drumming up support for war even as other Times reporters were finding holes in the evidence. “There were government officials who thought the WMD case for war in Iraq was very shaky. We wrote stories about this, but they were sometimes not prominently displayed,” Abramson says.
“I was not making the decisions about which stories got played how. [But] I wish I had played a bigger and louder role in making sure that the other stories [questioning the existence of Iraqi WMD] got the attention that they should have . . . The main lesson I took away from that experience is the importance of reporting, followed by more reporting. And also how critical it is to listen carefully to dissenting voices.”
In 2003, Raines resigned in disgrace over the Jayson Blair fabricated-stories fiasco, and Abramson was summoned to New York to become managing editor, replacing Gerald Boyd, who had been forced out with Raines. She was so happy to be back in her home city that she got a subway token tattooed on her shoulder.
But New York wasn’t entirely kind to her. In May 2007, Abramson was hit by a truck near the paper’s offices, breaking her left leg above the knee and severely injuring her right foot. She was hospitalized for several weeks, and a titanium rod was inserted in her leg; it was two months before she could walk again. (She bemoans the fact that other than the occasional pair of “ortho heels,” she’s pretty much relegated to flats.) But as a Times editor working under Raines’s replacement, Bill Keller, she flourished. In 2010 she took a six-month leave from her managing editor position to make a deep dive into the Times’s digital division, a move that several observers have since noted surely enhanced the possibilities of her own future as well as the paper’s.
A year later, Keller stepped down, and in June 2011 it was announced that Abramson would become executive editor on September 6. When she got the news, the first person she phoned was her sister. “I couldn’t help thinking about how our parents would feel,” O’Connor says. “I got very teary. I just felt a lot of the time I was channeling my mother and father and how over the moon they would be.”