This, I knew even then, was deeply unfair to Reston and his career. Over 40 years, he published an astonishing number of major scoops, and his analytical batting average was high. Through most of Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism, John F. Stacks judiciously explains Reston’s contributions and shortcomings and rightly places him near the center of almost every significant chapter of postwar American history. Only Walter Lippmann was a more influential 20th century newspaper columnist. Then, at the end, Stacks tries to take some of it away, suggesting Reston became corrupted by his proximity to power.
That feels forced, as if Stacks needs to accentuate the worst in order to carry the baggage of his larger, tacked-on theme about the decline of journalism. It also muddies his basic point, which is that we have lost something important with the transition from thoughtful Reston-style journalism to the shout culture of the news business today. My own feeling is that we were too hard on Reston in the 1970s and 1980s. He’s looking awfully good by comparison to the pooh-bahs of the business today.
Stacks opens with the quintessential Reston story: Moments after being pummeled by Nikita Khrushchev at the 1961 Vienna summit, President Kennedy returns to the U.S. embassy to pour his heart out to Reston, who has been told to wait there for him. The rest of the press is miles away. Stacks makes a big point that such access is simply unimaginable today, no matter how famous the journalist. But that’s not quite true. George F. Will was so close to Ronald Reagan that he helped prepare him for the debates in 1980, then called him a “thoroughbred” on television. Sidney Blumenthal was closer to Bill Clinton while still a journalist than Reston was to any president. While no journalists are intimates of George W. Bush (he doesn’t like ’em), many have been granted tremendous access to John McCain.
The larger point holds: The old chummy system where a handful of Washington journalists and government officials ran everything between them is in disrepair (especially since the death of Katharine Graham). But what has changed more since Reston’ s time is the place of the columnist in the hierarchy of the news business. With the possible exceptions of William Safire and Thomas Friedman, none today wield any direct influence over what happens in government. Columnists still have a role as validators of ideas and news, but they rarely break anything (try beating the Internet). And Reston spent his whole career without going on television more than occasionally. That would be almost impossible nowadays for an ambitious young journalist hawking his wares in an overcrowded marketplace.
Stacks ably charts Reston’s rise from Scottish immigrant to University of Illinois golf champion to Cincinnati Reds publicity man and AP sports writer, with his storybook marriage to Sally well-rendered. I don’t agree with his line that “if ever there was a born outsider, it was James Barrett Reston.” No matter how poor, white Protestants are not born as far outside the mainstream as blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and Catholics. But Reston did move a long way in a short time, joining The New York Times’ London bureau before he was 30, just on the eve of war.
There began a series of scoops, like Reston’ s sensational publication in 1945 of the secret founding documents of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which established the United Nations. Later, he convinced Sen. Arthur Vandenberg at a pivotal moment to renounce isolationism in favor of collective security, then broke the story. This crossed a line that journalists shouldn’t cross but happened to be very good for the country. At the end of his life, Reston insisted that, contrary to legend, he didn’t actually write Vandenberg’s famous speech.
Through the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, Reston was a skillful player in everything of consequence in Washington. His reporters learned of both the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis beforehand; Reston passed on the requests not to publish from the Kennedy White House to Times publisher Orvil Dryfoos, who made the final calls. In the first case, the decision to tone down the story about the training of Cuban exiles was a mistake; full publication might have prevented a fiasco. In the case of the the naval blockade of Soviet forces during the missile crisis, the paper, after Kennedy assured Reston the country would learn the facts in just a few hours, made the prudent call to hold off. Were such an occasion to arise today, the Bush White House, which has not granted The New York Times an interview since the inauguration, might regret its contempt for the print press.
Reston was more than a gifted reporter; he was also a gifted protege, going back to the impression he left as a teen on onetime presidential candidate James Cox (the 1920 Democratic nominee) after caddying for him in Ohio. The friendship Reston developed with Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the Times publisher, served him well on the way up, as he had to fend off Arthur Krock, the imperious Washington bureau chief. (Reston even borrowed money from Sulzberger to buy his Woodley Road house, now owned by Tim Russert.) Anyone with a taste for Times politics shouldn’t miss the chapter on Reston’s brief and painful tenure as executive editor of the paper in New York in 1968. Abe Rosenthal told Stacks that at one point he advised Reston to “shove it up your ass,” though he later called Stacks back to say his memory of the exact epithet might be faulty.
The following year, 1969, might have been the beginning of the end for Reston. He happened to be on Martha’s Vineyard when Ted Kennedy went over the bridge at Chappaquiddick but showed little of his old nose for news, and left the story to others. The 1960s confused him. His famous touch as a mentor never quite extended to women (years earlier he offered to hire the legendary Mary McGrory if she worked mornings on the switchboard; she declined), and he found himself heckled on campus. While Reston was skeptical of the war in Vietnam, he couldn’t satisfy those critics who felt that he maintained too much faith in the system. When Times lions like J. Anthony Lukas and David Halberstam criticized Reston in 1973 for being irrelevant and credulous toward authority, his own authority went into steep decline.
“What we do in the final lap is all that is remembered,” Stacks writes, after describing how Reston had drawn too close to Henry Kissinger. But Lippmann also faded into irrelevance toward the end, and his reputation has survived better, even though he was more wrong-headed on more issues than Reston, who was a superior judge of character. Perhaps the difference is that Lippmann also wrote books, and his more intellectual insight into American life has a longer shelf life than any scoop. Fortunately, Stacks has helped right the balance. Above all, Reston showed that nice guys can finish first in journalism. For a business with its share of jerks, that’s no small thing.