The Scoop on Scotty Reston

Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism, by John F. Stacks
Little, Brown: 374 pp., $29.95

By Charles Kaiser
From The Los Angeles Times
December 29, 2002

James Reston is already a name that means little to most people under age 30, but for several decades, his reporting was the standard that most serious newspapermen and -women used to measure the quality of their work. The bulwark of the Washington bureau of the New York Times from the 1950s to the 1970s, Reston was a master stylist and a master scoop artist. His style was the product of early insecurity that fueled years of hard work, including the keeping of "notes of vivid phrases" as a cub at Associated Press. Most of the scoops came from emulating his mentor, Walter Lippmann. During their time in Washington, only Reston matched Lippmann's flair for ingratiation with the man of the moment, whether it was John Foster Dulles or Henry A. Kissinger.

As John F. Stacks makes clear in "Scotty," Reston's improbably patrician sense of himself often enabled him to project a kind of evenhanded objectivity -- until the end, when his work slid into sycophancy. In many ways, Reston's 1991 autobiography, "Deadline: A Memoir," is a richer read than Stacks'. Indeed, Stacks borrows from "Deadline" to fill in the gaps in his own narrative, yet his book is valuable as an affectionate portrait that also depicts the less admirable aspects of Reston's character.

Years before E.B. White's observation that success requires a willingness to be lucky, Reston had mastered that lesson. As with so many all-American-up-from-nowhere sagas, there was nothing in his Ohio childhood to herald his eventual prominence. The son of impoverished Scottish immigrants, Reston was spurred on by his father's earthy charm, his mother's rigid discipline and his own terror of "being ridiculed as an outsider."

Luck started early for him -- in high school, where he became a star golfer and, soon after, the caddie at the Dayton Country Club for James Middleton Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News (in 1920, Cox had also been the Democratic candidate for president). A few years later, when Reston's $100 college tuition check bounced because the Ohio bank on which it was drawn had failed during the Depression, it was Cox who rescued him with a $100 loan and, later, a job at his newspaper.

In his first job with AP in New York, Reston struggled a bit on $45 a week, but when he met the great ocean liners in New York's harbor to interview "arriving big shots," he got a free breakfast that was big enough to last him all day. His colleagues wrote their stories on flimsy paper and filed them on the legs of homing pigeons, which flew from the ship to their roosts atop newspaper buildings. Then, when he was still 25, he got his first nationally syndicated column, "A New Yorker at Large," which he wrote six days a week. It made him "a welcome unpaying guest all over town, with tickets to the shows or the opera and even the run of all the big restaurants."

The luck continued when Reston was sent to London by AP to be a sportswriter -- and then was hired by the London bureau of the New York Times on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Just seven days later, Reston displayed the prose style that made him one of the wisest hires the Times ever made: "The world's largest city folded up tonight, just like London, Ohio. After a week of war there is not a single play or movie in town; there is not a chink of light in Piccadilly Circus; the big restaurants are deserted, and the boys didn't even play football in London today ... If you can possibly imagine all the youngsters from the lower East Side and Hell's Kitchen and Brooklyn and the Bronx suddenly thrown into every corner of every safe mansion in Westchester and upper New York State and New Jersey, you will have a vague idea of what the evacuation was like."

"The writing was luminous, full of clever images, yet relaxed, even casual," Stacks writes. And, most important, "it was not like anything else that was appearing in the Times of that era." When Reston was simply a superb hard-news reporter, his work left him practically without a peer. But he quickly became a power player in his own right; that was when he began to do things which seem more questionable with the passage of time.

Stacks provides a quote from Russell Baker's memoirs that best encapsulates Reston's character: "There was an old-fashioned, boyish look about him. With black hair, slightly curly, and a wide mouth that smiled readily, and a brow so serene that it seemed never to have scowled. At first glance he looked as if he might have stepped down from an old photograph over the velveteen settee in a 1912 parlor. The eyes told a rather different story. He had the shrewdest, wisest, most disconcerting gaze I had ever seen on an honest man."

The shrewdness led to his hiring of such magnificent talent as Baker, Robert B. Semple Jr., Tom Wicker, Linda Greenhouse, Steve Rattner and David Dunlap. But it also led to the cultivation of all those powerful men, and that's where the trouble started. "There was, at the heart of Reston's style of journalism, a sense of common purpose with the government and political leaders," Stacks writes. "The press and the government, although with different interests and different priorities, were seen by Reston as collaborators in one enterprise, the preservation of the United States of America."

That attitude will sound like sacrilege to many journalists who came of age after Watergate and were trained to believe that they must always assume an adversarial posture with their subjects. But Stacks argues that during most of Reston's career, his approach yielded excellent results. Because he had superb judgment, Reston could provide an intimate and balanced analysis of the good and bad things the government was doing.

When Reston crossed the line from insider to outright collaborator, however, it could lead to disaster. On the eve of the 1945 Yalta Conference, Arthur Vandenberg, a "self-important and very isolationist Michigan Republican" and ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, showed Reston a speech he wanted to give urging Western Allies to restrain Soviet expansionism. Reston thought it was pretty good, but he told the senator it was "only half a speech."

Rather than stop there, Reston suggested that Vandenberg add the idea of a treaty among the Soviet Union, France, Britain and the United States opposing any future German expansion. Vandenberg jumped at the suggestion, and the speech caused a sensation. Despite his role in writing it (Lippmann later claimed he was the co-author), Reston felt no compunction about praising the speech in the Times as "wise and statesmanlike." Three years later, he cited the speech in an article for Life that argued for Vandenberg's suitability for the Republican presidential nomination. In his memoirs, Reston insisted that he had never endorsed Vandenberg for the presidency, but he admitted that the piece in Life was a "foolish mistake" for which the Times "properly rebuked me."

This embarrassing incident reveals a degree of collaboration between reporter and politician that makes last month's allegations that Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes had improperly cooperated with the Bush administration look like the mildest of misdemeanors.

By the beginning of the 1970s, Reston seemed to have let down his guard altogether. Kissinger was a master media handler, but no one was more successfully manipulated by him than Reston. In December 1972, the Times Pentagon correspondent filed a story predicting the imminent resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam, but when Kissinger told Reston that it wasn't true, Reston got the story spiked. Then the bombing resumed -- with Kissinger's private support -- but because it provoked such a violent reaction, Kissinger persuaded Reston to write another column saying "it may be and probably is true that Mr. Kissinger as well as Secretary of State Rogers ... are opposed to the president's bombing offensive in North Vietnam." Revealingly, Reston writes nothing about this incident in his memoir. Instead, there is a seven-page homage to Kissinger's genius -- an obeisance duly rewarded with a blurb from Kissinger on Reston's book.

Reston's least successful year was 1968, when publisher Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger asked him to serve as interim executive edtior before Sulzberger decided to make A.M. Rosenthal the head of the daily paper. Reston admitted that he had no aptitude for the editor's job and never felt at home in New York: It was a city that always "scared" him. When he returned to Washington as a mere columnist, his interactions with Kissinger led to some of the sharpest criticism of his career. In 1972, former Times reporter J. Anthony Lukas accused Reston of lapsing into irrelevancy after the upheavals of the 1960s. "Some of those who have worked ... with Reston ... may wish that he were a little less cozy with power," said Lukas, "a little less reverential toward the System, a little more outspoken about the evils they detect in American society." When Reston published his memoirs in 1991 after retiring at 80, he offered no answers to his critics.

And yet, while Stacks never shies away from criticism of his subject, he remains firmly in Reston's corner -- showing the same talent for balance that Reston had at the peak of his career. "I do firmly believe," he writes, "that this nation would be better served if there were again Scotty Restons mining the inner workings of the government and telling us the truth about what they pry loose." In an era when cable news "journalists" like Bill O'Reilly now command the prominence that Reston once enjoyed, who could disagree with that judgment?

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