The Magazine


All the news that's fit to schmooze.

Feb 24, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 23 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism
by John F. Stacks
Little, Brown, 372 pp., $29.95

JOURNALISM is a character defect. I think most non-journalists would agree with this. It is life lived at a safe remove: standing off to one side of the parade as it passes, noting its flaws, offering glib and unworkable suggestions for its improvement. Every journalist must know that this is not, really, how a serious-minded person would choose to spend his days. Serious-minded people do things; a journalist chatters about the things serious-minded people do, and so, not coincidentally, avoids having to do them himself. A significant body of research indicates that non-journalists find us insufferable, perhaps for this reason.

Every so often, however, the itch to join the parade proves irresistible, and where that happens you are apt to find a career like that of James B. Reston. More commonly known by his childhood nickname "Scotty," Reston was the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times and for forty years its marquee columnist. He is nearly forgotten today, though he died not so long ago, in 1995, at the age of eighty-six. It seems only journalists remember him, and not many of them. One of these is John F. Stacks, a former reporter for Time magazine who spent ten years researching and writing Reston's biography, published as "Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism." The book is kindly, readable, and only occasionally as pompous as its subtitle. It is also well timed. Reston's once-celebrated career took him as close to the center of things as journalism can, and he deserves a final tribute before the curtain closes on him for good.

Reston was born in Scotland and emigrated with his parents at the age of ten. He was raised working class in Dayton, Ohio, and later secured a modest education at the University of Illinois, where, exploiting the peculiar racial endowments of the Scotsman, he led the Fighting Illini to a Big Ten trophy in golf. He was an ambitious man but never intellectually so; he was drawn to the school's journalism program because it had no language requirement. After a series of knockabout jobs--he graduated into the teeth of the Depression--he made his way to New York and the Associated Press. The AP sent him to London, where he covered sports and "society." He also found time to cultivate the friendship of the New York Times's bureau chief, who over the course of several months convinced the home office to hire him. By the beginning of World War II, his steady ascent had begun.

Greatly admiring Reston--calling him variously the "greatest," "the dominant," "the most influential," "the best" journalist of his time, "perhaps of all time"--Stacks works hard to force the reader to share the admiration. I suppose this is why he makes much of Reston's background as an immigrant. Though Reston would gain fame as the foremost practitioner of insider journalism, with intimate access into the remotest reaches of officialdom, he was "by definition an outsider," Stacks says, plagued by the "doubts and fears" that legend tells us are the immigrant's lot.

THE BIOGRAPHER produces no evidence for this, however, and there's a good deal of evidence to the contrary. While posted in London, Reston and his wife enjoyed the hospitality of such luminaries as the Astors, and immediately on coming to Washington after the war, where they lived more or less for the rest of their lives, they acquired a fashionable address in Georgetown, befriended the Alsops and the Achesons, and joined the salon of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. He was a member of half a dozen gentlemen's and country clubs. There is no record of his appearing ill at ease at any of them.

The keys to success he possessed as a natural gift. He wrote well. He had unqualified confidence in his own opinions, no matter how ignorant he was of the subject, and he wore his omniscience casually, like a rumpled Burberry. He knew how to charm sources and impress them with his discretion. Just as important, he could oscillate gracefully between abject sycophancy and Olympian condescension. Churchill's description of the German national character--they are "either at your feet or at your throat"--exaggerates the Reston style, but only slightly. He was generous to those, like his clerks, who were so far below him on the ladder as to pose no challenge. To those holding on for dear life a rung or two above, he was friendly but cunning; and to the Ochs and Sulzberger families, who owned the Times and controlled the ladder, he was boundlessly solicitous.