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.
Not long after coming to the Times, Reston hired on as administrative assistant to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the Times's publisher. It seemed an odd detour for an ambitious young reporter, but Reston knew what he was doing. Boss and protégé toured the world together, and the younger man took to calling Sulzberger "Mr. Gus," a nickname that carries the unmistakable squeak of the houseboy. Whatever the price in self-abnegation on Reston's part, however, the friendship paid for itself many times over.
When Reston moved to Washington, Sulzberger made sure he could write and report free of the imperious oversight of Arthur Krock, the paper's capital bureau chief. After Reston's reputation grew--he enjoyed several scoops built on leaks from friends, published a well-received book, won the obligatory Pulitzer--Sulzberger deposed Krock and replaced him with Reston. The newspaper helped him buy a large house near the National Cathedral and paid for its renovation. He traveled by whim and enjoyed a nearly limitless expense account, along with a Mercedes Benz and a driver to go with it. The Times put his wife on the payroll as a "researcher." Mr. Gus even gave Scotty his old houseslippers to wear. And at his death, in 1968, the publisher dug into his multimillion-dollar estate and offered his protégé a final gesture of noblesse oblige: a check for $1,000.
"Who in our profession has been more faithful in redeeming the obligations of a lifetime?" Scotty had written Mr. Gus in earlier days. "Who has carried the baton over rougher ground? Who has taken from one generation a nobler tradition and sustained and enriched it over so many years?" The answer, of course, was Mr. Gus. The toadying tone makes a reader cringe today, but for Reston it came much too easily. He deployed a subdued version of it for his columns, to describe the statesmen and politicians who were his sources and dinner partners. In strategic flattery, accuracy is always a secondary concern. He was, of course, wild about the Kennedys, particularly Jack, the master political illusionist whom Reston praised for his effort to "dispel some of the illusion of political life and deal with things as they are."
SUCH TRIBUTES were tossed like pixie dust over senators, congressmen, bureaucratic functionaries, and diplomats, men hugely important at the time and now long forgotten. He often made their case better than they could make it themselves. Once, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson was under fire for not abandoning his protégé Alger Hiss, Acheson justified his loyalty by citing the Sermon on the Mount. Thinking his friend's explanation too vague, Reston devoted several inches of column space to reprinting thirteen verses from Matthew's Gospel, as a way of getting Acheson's point across to a skeptical public. (Today all the sermons in the Times are secular.) Acheson, needless to say, was grateful for the favor.
There was much for Reston's sources to be grateful for. Kennedy, John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger, and countless others often used his column as a kind of bulletin board, floating ideas, registering public complaints, making feints toward allies and enemies. The benefit ran both ways. The officials got their messages ventilated in the authoritative columns of the Times, while everyone else--readers, colleagues, and editors in New York--marveled at Reston's insider knowledge. It is one of the paradoxes of journalism: The more servile a reporter is toward his sources, the more authoritative he can appear in print. An excellent example of the method involved Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the famed Republican isolationist who, at the close of World War II, suddenly became an ardent internationalist and anti-Communist.
Vandenberg's conversion was a signal event in American politics, solidifying the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that confronted the Soviets for most of the Cold War. Reston played a crucial role in it. As Vandenberg planned the speech announcing his change of heart, he sought out Reston for counsel, and the columnist obliged, though to what degree is unknown. Time magazine later called Vandenberg's address "the speech heard 'round the world." Did Reston write it? Testimony differs. His famous friend and fellow columnist Walter Lippman said that Reston did, with Lippman's help; Reston years later denied it.
IRREFUTABLY, however, Reston read and commented on its various drafts, and when Vandenberg offered it up on the Senate floor, the columnist used the front page of the Times to hail it as "wise and statesmanlike." Vandenberg returned the favor by sharing with Reston the cascade of intelligence that came his way as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and de facto congressional leader of America's new containment policy. Three years later, Reston wrote an article in Life magazine "making the case" for a possible Vandenberg presidential campaign. And a few years after that he favorably reviewed, in the Times, a collection of Vandenberg's speeches, including the speech he himself had been involved in.
The recent canons of the trade, such as they are, require a contemporary reporter to be shocked at this chumminess between hack and source. Stacks's view is less righteously indignant, and more ambivalent--and in the end, sorry to say, incoherent. He seems relatively undisturbed that Reston served as stenographer to Vandenberg, Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, and other figures of the dimming past; then he erupts in disgust when, at the end of his career, Reston shared the same relationship with figures of more recent memory--Henry Kissinger, for example. What accounts for Stacks's shifting judgment isn't clear. Incoherence is a common hazard for journalists who dabble in ethical judgments.
Certainly the disdain toward Reston was widely shared by the time he retired in the late 1980s. The younger generation of reporters who had once revered him now saw him as irretrievably compromised, a windy old establishmentarian, carrying water for the ruling class. Several of them collaborated on an indictment that appeared in a journalism magazine called More. "Some of those who worked for and with Reston over the years," the authors wrote, "wish that he were a little less cozy with power, a little less reverential toward the System." But he had always been cozy with the System; his coziness had been the source of his own power and the reason he had been revered. What had changed, as he grew older, was the attitude that journalists were supposed to have toward the System. (How I love that capital "S.")
IN THE END, of course, Reston's intimate involvement in the affairs he covered isn't hard to explain. He wasn't comfortable with the pose of the contemporary journalist, standing off to one side, watching the parade as it passes. He wanted to join in. "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 . . . were seen by Reston as collaborators in one enterprise, the preservation of the United States of America."
Reston began his career at the Times the day Germany crossed into Poland. He wrote his last column the year the Berlin Wall came down. His style of journalism was an artifact of the Cold War. When he let Kennedy use his column to send signals to Nikita Khrushchev, or lent his skill to Vandenberg to reinforce the anti-Soviet consensus in American diplomacy, he wasn't acting as a reporter but as a patriot. This urge may be a dereliction of duty in the journalist, but it is a sign of decency in the man. That the two impulses in journalism should so often be at odds--duty versus decency--tells us more about the trade than most of us care to know.
Andrew Ferguson is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for Bloomberg News.