OBITUARY: James Reston

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The Independent Online
James B. Reston was his by-line, but to his family, his colleagues and the world at large he was known as Scotty. He was the outstanding American journalist of the post-war period. For nearly half a century as a reporter and columnist for the New York Times he achieved more major scoops, interviewed more world leaders and won more respect from his fellow journalists than anyone else in the news business. Because of his personal integrity he was trusted by those who provided the news as well as by those who read it.

As his nickname implied, Reston was born in Scotland. His father, a small, kindly man with strong Calvinist beliefs, left Clydebank for Dayton, Ohio, in 1911, when his son was only two. But domestic and financial problems overwhelmed the family and they returned to Scotland. In 1920, a lean time on Clydeside, Reston senior went to Ohio again, eventually found work, and sent for his family to join him.

Within a few days of his second arrival in America young Reston, then aged 10, landed his first paying job as a caddie at the local golf club. A regular player there was the Governor of Ohio, James Cox, who had just been defeated by Warren Harding in his bid for the American presidency. Governor Cox encouraged young Reston to learn the game himself. He gave him a couple of clubs and paid for some professional lessons. The boy spent all his free time on the course and won several junior championships.

His skill at golf helped him finance his way through the University of Illinois School of Journalism, where he got a post in the university sports publicity office and became the captain of the university golf team. It was at the School of Journalism that he met Sally, the intelligent, dark- haired, vivacious daughter of Judge William Fulton. Until then Scotty Reston had been a superb athlete but an indifferent student. He raised himself to her standards and began to do well academically. His autobiography Deadline, published in 1991, is the story of the two loves of his life; his adopted country, and Sally Fulton, whom he married on Christmas Eve 1935.

Governor Cox did Reston a further good turn. He helped him procure a job as a sports writer on one of the Cox newspapers in Ohio. This in turn led to his becoming the publicity director of a baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, and later a sports reporter for the Associated Press in New York. In 1937 the news agency transferred him to London, essentially to cover Wimbledon, the Grand National, championship prize fights and international golf matches, rather than the looming threat of war. He and Sally enjoyed getting to know England. The doctor who delivered their eldest son Dick was a courteous young man called John Peel, later the famous Sir John Peel who attended the Queen when each of her four children were born.

On 1 September 1939, the day that Hitler attacked Poland, Reston transferred to the London bureau of the New York Times. He reported London at war in its early stages, but towards the end of the Blitz he developed undulant fever and was shipped back to America. He was attached to the Washington bureau of the New York Times. It was his first experience of the city he was later to dominate so decisively.

While working as a reporter Reston wrote a book, Prelude to Victory, which challenged the widespread mood of isolationism common in the American Congress in 1941. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor the Office of War Information, the US propaganda agency, asked the New York Times to release Reston to work in London. While he was there the new publisher of the Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, called on the American ambassador, John Winant. Winant summoned Reston to help answer a question, mentioning to Sulzberger that Reston was on temporary leave from the New York Times, and jokingly adding that without his support the entire Allied war effort would collapse. The publisher thereupon invited Reston to come for a private talk and shortly made him his personal assistant. As Reston said, London was his lucky town.

After a visit with Sulzberger to Moscow, and a formative spell at the head office in New York, Reston reverted to Washington. His beat was the foreign embassies. President Roosevelt, after his fourth-term victory in 1944 and with the war reaching its climax, called an international conference at Dumbarton Oaks, a fine mansion in the Georgetown area of Washington, to discuss the terms of peace and the organisation of the post-war world.

Reston was assigned to cover Dumbarton Oaks. He had the good fortune to meet there a Chinese friend, Chen Yi, who had been apprenticed to the New York Times before the war. Chen Yi was attending as a junior member of the Chinese (Nationalist) delegation. Reston discovered that Chen Yi had the complete texts of the proposals being discussed by the US, British, Soviet and Chinese delegations. He congratulated his old friend on his successful career and persuaded him that it would be a pity not to share these wonderful proposals with the peoples who had suffered so much during the war. Reston added that the New York Times, as the only American paper of record, would devote the space necessary for their complete and careful publication.

Without delay Chen Yi opened his briefcase and handed Reston the whole collection of documents in English. He hurried back with them to Arthur Krock, the Times bureau chief, and they arranged that the paper should publish the US text one day, the Soviet the next, and so on. There was a furious rumpus at Dumbarton Oaks. Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet delegate, accused the New York Times of trying to divide the Allies. The US Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, charged Lord Halifax, the British Ambassador, with committing an "outrageous breach of security", but the conference survived and Reston was awarded his first Pulitzer Prize.

After steadily enhancing his reputation Reston succeeded Krock as the Washington bureau chief in 1953. He then started writing a column of opinion and interpretation which was nationally syndicated in America and frequently reprinted abroad. It was written with style and insight, and frequently expressed the conscience of the United States, as when he said of Richard Nixon's role in the Watergate scandal, "There is scarcely a noble principle in the Constitution that he hasn't defended in theory or defied in practice." Sometimes there was humour. In the cloakroom of his house in Washington there used to hang the original of a New Yorker cartoon with one of those massive Helen Hokinson matrons sighing, "Oh dear, Mr Reston's being funny again!"

Reston arranged with his employers to forgo the services of a secretary in return for being allowed to appoint each year a bright young college graduate to answer the mail, find the missing facts and review his copy. This system, akin to the clerks to Justices of the Supreme Court, was recommended by one of them, his friend Felix Frankfurter. It enabled Reston to build a remarkably talented Washington bureau for the New York Times, and to start a number of excellent American journalists on their newspaper careers.

Reston's second Pulitzer Prize came for his reporting of the 1956 presidential election, in which Dwight Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson for the second time. Stevenson was Reston's favourite political loser. I remember lying on the floor next to Reston outside the Illinois Caucus room at the beginning of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1952. We were listening through the gap under the door as Stevenson earnestly pleaded with the Illinois delegates not to nominate him. As governor of the host state he had just made a rousing speech of welcome, which had put heart into the dispirited Democrats, but he wanted to remain Governor of Illinois. Nobody needed to save the United States from Eisenhower, Stevenson argued, and couldn't if they tried, after 20 years of Democratic rule.

In 1964 Scotty Reston returned to New York to become the associate editor of the paper, and from 1968 the executive editor with principal responsibility for directing the news of the daily and Sunday papers. However after a few years he decided he was happier writing in Washington than editing in New York. He and his wife made frequent trips abroad, for his reputation guaranteed him ready access and exclusive interviews with any of the world's 1eaders.

After 48 years with the New York Times Reston wrote his last regular column in August 1967. In it he said,

I would feel better if marriage were more popular, but I doubt if so many people were ever so well fed, well read, or bright-minded and curious and critical as the rising generation is today. My hope for them, after more than 52 years of married life, is that they'll finally know what old love is.

Reston had had a singularly rewarding family life. Sally was a delightful hostess and a most supportive wife. She and Scotty bought the Vineyard Gazette, a famous paper on Martha's Vineyard, which their eldest son, Dick, as editor has made into the best weekly in New England. Their second, Jim, has written highly successful political biographies, and might have been the first journalist to travel in a space mission, but for the Challenger disaster in 1986 which put a stop to civilian passengers. The youngest, Tom, now a lawyer, was a State Department spokesman during the Carter administration.

Leonard Miall

James Barrett Reston, newspaperman and author: born Clydebank 3 November 1909; reporter, Dayton Daily News 1932-33; publicity director, Cincinnati Baseball Club 1934; reporter, Associated Press, New York 1934-37, London 1937-39; reporter, New York Times London bureau 1939-41, Washington bureau 1941; staff, American Embassy, London 1942; personal assistant to the publisher, New York Times 1943-44, Washington bureau 1944-53, chief Washington correspondent 1953-64, associate editor, New York 1964-68, executive editor 1968-87; married 1935 Sally Fulton (three sons); died Washington DC 6 December 1995.