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The bracing venom of race rhetoric is loose again in the District. Its ongoing currency buries the illusion that Marion Barry took all of the animus with him when he left office. Barry’s out, but the race card remains in play. Washington was and is a city defined by race, regardless of who’s doing the dealing.

Deep down, D.C.ers of all hues knew that Barry’s departure couldn’t erase our municipal Mason-Dixon line. What is surprising about the current debate, however, is that so much of it is turning up in the Washington Post, an outfit not known for candor when it comes to matters of race.

Readers were left to scratch their heads in wonder. Here was an Outlook piece suggesting that Williams wasn’t black enough. Over there was a Metro story questioning his choice of colors in arrogant right-hand men. And when the suspect word “niggardly” was pulled from the dustbin of language, it showed up all over the paper: in an attitudinous front-page—front-page!—piece by Style writer Linton Weeks; in an acid-etched commentary by Colbert King whacking the mayor for political cowardice; and then, a day later, in columnist Courtland Milloy’s comebacker arguing that “niggardly” drips racism whenever it falls from the lips of a white man.

What’s going on here? For years, Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman and other leaders at the paper tamped down any hint that one of the most racially divided cities in America was one of the most racially divided cities in America. The paper’s hinkiness was deepened in 1986, when racially divisive copy had people making bonfires out of the newly launched Sunday magazine and telling the Post: “Take it back.”

These are different times, apparently. Staffers say it is the very same Coleman who has helped publish unrestrained analysis and strong daily coverage of the suddenly apparent racial chasm. By doing its job, the Post has been accused—by the New Republic, among other D.C. experts—of lighting the fuse with explosive coverage. I take a different view: It’s about damn time that the paper reflects what is going on in the midst of the city it purports to cover.

District residents thought that by voting for Williams, they had bought an end to years of well-scripted race-baiting. By firing the staffer who spoke the dreaded word and thus collapsing to the forces of innuendo and ignorance, Williams managed a unilateral twofer, ending his press honeymoon and breaking the hearts of his dewy-eyed constituents.

The Post’s coverage has been all over the map, and is all the more interesting for it. Many people point to the publication of Anthony Jenkins’ attack on the new mayor in Outlook some weeks ago as the place where things started to go wrong. But even if his arguments were half-baked, Jenkins spoke for significant portions of D.C. when he questioned the mayor’s affiliation with people of his own race. To his eventual chagrin, Williams took the bait in a single gulp a few days later by accepting the resignation of a Mau-Maued white guy in an effort to show he was as loyal as the next black pol.

From my (white, Ward 3) perspective, it was the lowest form of pandering. Coverage in both the Post and the Washington Times, on the other hand, suggested it was much more complicated than that—that many black citizens don’t care what Webster’s says about “niggardly,” they’d just as soon it not be part of a manager’s lexicon in D.C. government. Williams initially argued that things had gotten out of hand because of press coverage—another rookie mistake: Any time you end up with the NAACP and the Wall Street Journal on your ass, the hand that strikes you is your own.

When some of the smoke had cleared, Williams spokesperson Peggy Armstrong acknowledged as much: “It was not just [the coverage]. I think that the incident struck a nerve and ended up sparking a conversation about race and semantics. I was surprised it became a national and international story, yes, but it does raise important questions that we didn’t initially see.” (Howard was later asked by the mayor to withdraw his resignation and will be given another position in the administration.)

Those questions were happily entertained by everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Maureen Dowd. There was a time when a national disgrace like this would have been nicely papered over by the Post—third-term Barry comes to mind—but the paper has settled on engagement instead. Managing Editor Steve Coll says that the coverage reflects a mature paper in stride, not some new mandate for racial forthrightness.

“As a staff, we had a relaxed and lively conversation about this story and our role in it. I think that’s the way things should work. The healthy dialogue at the paper was reflected in all the things we did….And in terms of the story making it to the front page, we try to look for energy for the front wherever we can find it. It’s not part of any program. If anything, many of our efforts are focused on the outer rim of our coverage. This was just a lively subject that we thought many of our readers would be interested in.”

Colorizing a Black and White Classic So the Post rolled out a carnival of colors on its front page last week. Missed it? Well, let’s just say that vast puddles of Senate pinstripe blue ain’t exactly going to stretch Gauguin’s palette. (OK, we got Elway in big-time color—but did you really need another look at Bronco orange?) The bandwidth of color is ultimately limited less by technology than by the front-page preoccupation with a single faux-historic story. And we all knew Monica’s baseball cap was black already. Add the fact that photos in the Post are frequently treated as those funny things that keep headlines from colliding, and you’d barely notice that the Post sneaked in under the wire to don a tarty new outfit for the millennium. Assistant Managing Editor for Photos Joe Elbert says that the lack of annuciatory splash is by design:

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“The pictures you saw a week ago that were 7 inches wide in black and white are the same ones that are appearing in color this week. The [Monica] story that has haunted us all for a year determines what we are running [on the front page]. It wouldn’t seem like a great story to pick [for the rollout], but this is the perfect story from our perspective. We are giving our readers soft tones to begin with. We aren’t interested in shocking the reader.”

Washington is a visually conservative community. You only have to spend 10 minutes at the Wall Street Deli to know that dowdy is a very respectable look in D.C. Whereas the uber-gray New York Times reveled in its color when it finally arrived, the Post is content to turn up the visual temperature by tiny increments. “The jury is out and will be out for a while,” Elbert says. “This paper has had a great run in black and white, and I’m as excited by the better reproduction we are getting as I am by the introduction of color to the front.”

The color—however modulated—has its costs. All of the printing of Washington, D.C.,’s hometown paper now goes on outside the city limits on spanking-new presses—completing another incremental change that the Post hopes we won’t notice.

Idle Gossip The Post’s Reliable Source duo of Ann Gerhart and Anne Groer, commonly referred to as the “Annies,” are calling it quits. Gerhart came to the paper from the Philadelphia Daily News with an understanding that she would work the tidbit beat for three years and then graduate to Style as a writer. That was three-and-a-half years ago. Even though her deal isn’t wired, she’s ready. “I will be a Style writer…by the year 2002,” she boldly predicts.

Groer is on vacation in Australia and reportedly has no definitive plans for next. Oddly enough, the column has had a strong run in her absence because a single voice has been driving the column. Printed gossip sounds best in mono, not stereo. Don’t look for the Post to make the same mistake on this next go-round. Word is that Style-y Lloyd Grove will be filling in the gossip gap. It’s an interesting prospect: Grove has covered media and government for Style, and celebrities aplenty as a Vanity Fair contractor. That’s a nice Rolodex to begin with. And Gerhart—who describes herself as “a tabloid soul in a broadsheet body”—says that getting people to return calls isn’t a problem:

“There are two kinds of people in this town: people who are dying to have their name in the column and people who are dying to keep their name out of the column. Both kinds pick up the phone when I call.”

And what about material in a button-down village where indiscretion is the most venal of all sins? Nonsense, Gerhart says:

“I have been witness to the most outrageous strokes of bad behavior I have ever seen anywhere. There is so much grasping, craven, utter rudeness here it’s hard to fit it all in.”

Talk Value Legal Times’ Editor Tom Watson has long been an unsung savant of Washington journalism. He has had no equal in picking talent and stories and polishing both until they have shone beyond the borders of his paper’s low-circ niche. And, although it may not have been worth 10 years of putting up with D.C. lawyers, Watson’s next posting will have a slightly higher profile attached. As an editor over politics, legal affairs, business, and investigations at Tina Brown’s embryonic Talk magazine, his skills will be overlayed on a bigger budget, and—parent company Miramax hopes—a bigger audience.

“The thing that strikes me is that Tina Brown has shopped for talent in a lot of weird places, and I’m happy that I will be part of it. After 10 years at Legal Times, it seemed like a good time to look at something new, and this seems too exciting to pass up,” Watson said.

Although Watson has made all sorts of nice noises about the current talent at Legal Times and a happy, seamless transition, it’s probably not going to turn out that way. The little paper that broke big stories has lost a lot of serious knockers, including Editor and Publisher Eric Effron, who went to Content magazine just last August. Former staffers Judy Sarasohn and Benjamin Wittes are at the Post, and Content also grabbed reporter Rob Schmidt.

One longtime observer of the paper says it will take a while to recover: “It’s an amazing hire for Tina Brown for the same reason that it’s a tremendous loss for Legal Times. It’s a disaster. Tom is the one who did the most to build that paper into what it is today, and you aren’t going to replace that anytime soon.”

Good Riddance “Goodbye.” That’s the lede to Richard Cohen’s farewell column in the Post Sunday magazine. Technically brilliant, intellectually toxic, Cohen used the final column of his dozen-year magazine run to bust himself better than any two-bit rock thrower ever could: “I felt some time ago that I was out of ideas.”

His editor couldn’t disagree more. Glenn Frankel, who took over from Steve Coll back in August, says he’s not happy to be kissing Cohen goodbye. “I am brokenhearted to lose him. I don’t believe there is anybody who is as good a craftsman. Richard can do this kind of writing in his sleep,” Frankel says.

There are readers who would argue that’s exactly what he’s been up to in his bi-weekly column. Again, Frankel differs, saying, “I thought in some ways he was getting his second wind. I would have kept him in there forever. He can still piss off readers with the best of them, but it’s always well-argued and very thought-through.”

Cohen’s glossy homestead for midlife dolor will reportedly be taken over by front-page hot dog Marc Fisher. (Neither Fisher nor Frankel would confirm succession.) The magazine is on a nice little tear of late, most lately manifested in David Finkel’s epic rendering of one drunk’s unintentional fall into criminality. Curiously, Coll seems to have added to both the magazine and the paper as a whole by subtracting himself out of the magazine job and being promoted to a bigger canvas. Liza Mundy, whose column has alternated with Cohen’s, has restricted herself to mostly domestic matters. But she recently got off a doozy about how unjust it is that important literary artists have died in our midst while other hacks who should be dead continue to perpetrate. She did not mention Cohen.

Thoughtful Tank What’s a nice culture diva like Margaret Talbot—who recently left the New Republic—doing at a place called the New America Foundation? “It’s just a personal decision. I like the other people here, and I think they are interested in a variety of writing on cultural topics.” Talbot is a compelling explainer of contemporary intellectual Americana—a talent that should get plenty of play in the New York Times Magazine, where she has a contract. Although she has a healthy relationship with the magazine, she points out that “they don’t have a Washington office or health insurance for people like me.”

Meanwhile, the “Fallows Fellows”—so called because James Fallows is chairman of the board of the newish think tank—get an office, support staff, Lexis-Nexis, insurance, and a nice allowance. Talbot says of her new professional home: “I think the idea is to provide a liberal or centrist alternative to places like the Heritage Foundation.”

But Chief Operating Officer Alice Eaken is more circumspect: “The foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute working to bring new voices into the debate. It’s beyond any label of left or right. It’s a blending…a heterodoxy.” You don’t have to make too many phone calls to a think tank to run into that kind of wonkery.

Talbot is the last of the big-time Michael Kelly holdovers at the New Republic—Kelly was dumped by Marty Peretz after he became uncomfortable with Kelly’s insistence on pointing out that the commander in chief was a rat-fink liar. Talbot will not say much about her departure beyond that it was a good time to move on. Another former staffer offers: “It’s probably good for [New Republic Editor] Chuck [Lane]. All of the cranks who were sitting there stewing about his existence are gone, and he won’t have to worry about nasty looks being cast down the hall.” Someone who is not a fan of the current TNR , but a big fan of Talbot’s, describes her departure from the weekly this way: “It’s like watching the last Mercedes pull out of the lot.” —David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.