Reston, King of Access, Dean of a Trustworthy Press

Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism , by John F. Stacks. Little, Brown, 384 pages, $29.95.

There was a time, not too long ago, when no one would have dared to write a book about Scotty Reston-and then, once it was written, everyone would have run out and bought it. Nowadays, Reston occupies the strange purgatory that journalists go to when they expire: remembered, but not nearly as well as the dumber politicians he covered during his long and legendary stint as the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times (1953-64). Yes, it will stir some embers in Washington, where what’s left of the old insider establishment is reduced to a few octogenarians channel-surfing between rebroadcasts of All the President’s Men and Michael Beschloss discussing F.D.R.’s leadership on C-Span 2. But for most of us-including the vast majority born in the last half-century-this book is not exactly what we’re looking for under the Christmas tree.

In many ways, that’s a shame. Scotty is not a perfect book. It’s too reverential (the author, John Stacks, was a Time magazine editor for many years and is palpably nostalgic for the glory days), and it’s not entirely clear to me why we should read this book instead of an old copy of Deadline , Reston’s funny memoir. But Scotty tells the story of a remarkable life in an era when foreigners were encouraged to live among us, Washington was an open city, and the media’s integrity and access to power were part of the general understanding of what constituted a civil society. Reston’s saga combines elements of all of these forgotten truths. And hell, if we can allow Henry Kissinger and the 1948 Dixiecrats back into our government, why not a tough old mongoose like Reston with a nose for killing snakes?

Scotty Reston seems to have been not so much a human being as a character in a Frank Capra movie. He sprang from the Midwest, of course (where Jimmy Stewart always came from), but only got there after an arduous childhood passage from Scotland. His parents had fled their hardscrabble existence for the opulence of Dayton, Ohio, home to great Americans like the Wright Brothers and Kim Deal. Reston adapted brilliantly, though his brogue lingered for years, along with the outsider’s sense that he didn’t quite belong (odd for a journalist who came to embody the idea of insiderdom). He attended the University of Illinois, starred at golf, fell in love with and married his college sweetheart, then began his real life as a reporter.

Through a lot of luck and hard work, he was in extraordinary places at just the right time. He began work for The Times in London on Sept. 1, 1939, the very day Nazi Germany invaded Poland. He stuck out the Blitz, worked for the Office of War Information, and journeyed to Russia and Iran with the publisher of The Times , Arthur Hays Sulzburger (the beginning of a lifelong intimacy with the paper’s ruling family). Then, from 1944 on, he covered Washington as it changed overnight from a dull Southern town to a dull Southern town that controlled the world’s destiny. He saw it all, and translated the news into articles and columns that cast a spell on millions of Americans, gently explaining the government’s biorhythms week after week.

Reston and Washington were made for each other. He was in his prime during the long, halcyon era of American ascendancy that ran roughly from the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks conference (he won his first Pulitzer by convincing a Chinese diplomat to leak the proceedings) up to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Reston had two great strengths: access and readability. Both were less effortless than they seemed, as any rival reporter could have told you. No journalist before or since has had a comparable set of relationships with the ruling elite. He was close enough to Kay Graham to be appointed guardian of her children. He knew every leading politician from both parties (one of his best friends was Adlai Stevenson, whom he called “tight as a Pullman window”). When John F. Kennedy came out of his disastrous meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, Reston was secretly waiting at the U.S. embassy so they could have a private talk.

By and large, Reston used his privileged information constructively. He combined a peerless understanding of foreign policy with a similar understanding of domestic politics-two topics that are intimately connected but usually parceled out to different reporters. He never entirely lost his Ohio touch, and his vinegary humor helped to make the abstract predicaments of a superpower real to ordinary Americans. In an act of restraint that now seems unimaginable, he withheld information about the Cuban missile crisis so as not to force Kennedy’s hand. While some detractors later criticized him as a toady to the establishment, his writing had a Scottish edge, and he sounded off about policies he disliked. Reston had more than access; he had the respect of America’s leaders, and he scared them a bit, too. It’s hard to imagine him writing a book like Bush at War , Bob Woodward’s fawning Christmas card to the current administration.

In the 60’s, life grew less rosy for Reston. Like Forrest Gump, his personal well-being mirrored the country’s, and he suffered as the ruling establishment lost its way in the jungles of Southeast Asia. A skeptic at heart, Reston was uncomfortable with both the blind defenders of our Vietnam policy and those who used a foreign-policy blunder to attack every underlying premise of America. Reston also fought several costly battles within the Times hierarchy, and served a tempestuous year as executive editor (his only contribution, he joked, was that the page numbers grew a bit bigger).

Still, he endured. If he lost some of his edge, he was smart enough to surround himself with hungry young talent who called themselves Reston’s Rangers. The list of Times men he mentored reads like a Who’s Who of American journalism: Tom Wicker (whose new book on Ike is dedicated to Reston), Jonathan Yardley, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, to name just a few. Reston was becoming a relic (he called the TV Presidential news conference “the goofiest idea since the hula hoop”), but he encouraged the great work on Vietnam and Watergate that distinguished The Times and The Washington Post , and played a role in the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Scotty is well-crafted, solid and sensible-all features Reston would have appreciated. A deeper study would have engaged in more analysis of the historic conditions that allowed Reston to flourish and then ushered him to the door. A brief afterword begins the work, but doesn’t go far enough. One wonders what the crusty Scot would have thought about the current state of the media, with its breathless cult of celebrity, its disinclination to probe secret government decisions, and its bemused tolerance of hate-spewing gasbags like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter-who get louder and louder as they have less to say. It’s probably a blessing that Reston left the scene when he did.

But even if Mr. Stacks doesn’t explore these thoughts, his book still serves as an elegy for what we have lost: a distant time when journalists were generally trusted and trustworthy, the U.N. was essential to principled foreign policy, foreign policy was essential to any self-respecting newspaper’s coverage and budget, and the government treated the media-and by extension, the people-with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. Happy holidays.

Ted Widmer is the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

Reston, King of Access, Dean of a Trustworthy Press