Scotty Reston stands tall, warts and all

January 20, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - A new biography of James "Scotty" Reston, the famous Washington reporter, columnist and editor of The New York Times through World War II and the Cold War years, is both a celebration of what he was in his prime and a criticism of what he did in his later years.

Scotty: The Rise and Fall of James B. Reston, America's Greatest Journalist is the story of Mr. Reston in most of his Washington days as the embodiment of journalistic enterprise and independence and in his final years as a crosser of the supposedly firm line between writing about government policy and taking a hand in shaping it.

In a sense, the evolution of Mr. Reston's professional behavior from observer to player tracks a major change in the practice of Washington journalism. In this excellent account by former Time magazine reporter John Stacks, Mr. Reston moves from firm noninvolvement in the conduct of policy and politics to active role-playing.

The Reston era from the 1940s into the 1990s saw the development and growth of celebrity journalism that was the antithesis of this quiet, unassuming but vastly influential man. He toiled from a time when a newspaperman's written words might bring him a modicum of fame to the era of television, when glibness of tongue became the measure of great public notoriety, if not always of wisdom.

Journalism as show business held no appeal for Mr. Reston, and he seldom succumbed to it in the fashion that is commonplace for many print reporters today. If he had a seductress toward the end, it was the pull of power wielding in high places.

Mr. Stacks' biography presents both Restons, with admiration for the first and a sort of sad dismay about the second, when in his later years he misused his unparalleled access to presidents and key Cabinet secretaries. Often, beyond gathering inside information and insight for his readers, he offered his own to the high and mighty and, lamentably in some cases, carried their mail.

As Mr. Stacks reports, Mr. Reston increasingly saw himself not simply as a conveyor belt for the thinking of officialdom at the highest level but also as a direct contributor to policy debate and an ex-officio diplomat.

For example, the book cites a long Reston interview with Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1975 during which, according to former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, also present as a journalist, Mr. Reston said: "Mr. President, do you mind if I change my hat. I'd like to put on my diplomatic hat, because I have a message for you from the secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. He wants to begin negotiations to normalize relations with Cuba."

Mr. Stacks reports other Reston dealings with Mr. Kissinger in which the columnist seemed too close and too protective of one of Washington's most manipulative public officials.

Most of the time, however, Mr. Reston displayed a skepticism that did not spill over into cynicism, and always with a conviction that the American system was inherently good. It was a belief that did not sustain others through the Vietnam War and Watergate who came to see him as a latter-day betrayer of his own high journalistic standards.

The highlight, or lowlight, of my own brief association with Mr. Reston was being interviewed by him and rejected for a job in his Washington bureau in the mid-1950s, when, like most young reporters then, I considered working under him akin to studying at the foot of Socrates. The turndown did not diminish my professional admiration for the man and the simplicity and clarity of his prose.

Mr. Stacks' book conveys Mr. Reston with an honesty that offers much evidence of the man's strengths along with his lapses, and presents more than enough of the former to sustain his reputation as one of Washington journalism's genuine icons.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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