James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism
By John F. Stacks
Little, Brown -- 373pp -- $29.95
Power, as Henry Kissinger once famously suggested, may be an aphrodisiac. But for journalists, especially in Washington, mere access to power is headier stuff still. Having top officials trust you enough to confide secrets is an intoxicating but dangerous brew. In the news biz, what separates the great ones from the hacks is an ability to disengage from what can be very personal transactions, probe rather than parrot what the powerful tell you, and then speak the truth as you see it. And the hardest part is doing this in such a way that the powerful will still talk to you after your story comes out.
A rare and rich exploration of this encounter between journalism and power can be found in Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism by John F. Stacks. The absorbing, first-rate biography of one of the 20th century's greatest journalists has a provocative thesis: As a correspondent and later Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, the legendary Reston walked the line more skillfully than anyone before or since--and yet it was "so difficult that in the end even Scotty Reston could not sustain it." In fact, as Stacks shows, it's shocking how hard he fell.
Stacks, a veteran Time magazine editor, knows this world and writes about it with aplomb. Blessed with the cooperation of the Reston family (Scotty died in 1995), Stacks has also checked everything with multiple sources. The resulting portrait acknowledges Reston's greatness without glossing over his ultimate seduction. Readers witness pivotal events stretching from World War II through Watergate as Reston, with his extraordinary contacts, viewed them. The volume will captivate anyone with an interest in politics, public policy, and the strange ways of the Fourth Estate.
The son of pious, poor Scottish immigrants, Reston first made his mark as the captain of the University of Illinois golf team and, later, in the public-relations office of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. How he became the most powerful journalist of his era is an American success story: He was talented, yes--but Reston was also indefatigable in cultivating useful friends and playing office politics.
Reston's greatest gift, Stacks believes, was "his understanding of how to use what he learned." Not only did the journalist have extraordinary entree to history in the making, but "he understood its importance, he conveyed it to his readers, and he protected his future access to the most powerful."
Reliving this career is like visiting a garden of lost treasures. From Dwight D. Eisenhower to Lyndon B. Johnson, Presidents thought nothing of picking up the phone and spilling their guts to Reston. His power didn't always come from reporting what he knew. Sometimes it was the result of withholding information. Stacks combs out the extraordinary roles Reston played in deciding what the public would learn during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the bombing of Hanoi.
Reston became not just famous but rich as well. The New York Times provided him with a huge salary, a car, even the company jet. Yet Reston, a trusting soul who believed in the goodness of American ideals and institutions, became so wrapped up in his role as Father Confessor to the Powerful that he lost the ability to make critical news judgments. For example, Stacks describes how, a year after Reston bought a small community newspaper on Martha's Vineyard as a plaything, he was among the first to learn that a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy had plunged into the water off a Chappaquiddick bridge. Reston phoned the story in to the Times with the lead: "Tragedy has again struck the Kennedy family," not mentioning victim Mary Jo Kopechne until the fourth paragraph. The story had to be rewritten.
The next day, Reston and Times reporter Joseph Lelyveld went to the scene, where they found the two kids who had discovered the car and who had called the police. "Lelyveld took notes," says the author, while Reston, who felt this was a soon-to-be forgotten incident, "took a fishing rod out of his car and began fishing with the boys." Lelyveld reflected later: "He had no sense of how people outside of Washington would see the story."
But Stacks saves his harshest criticism for Reston's sycophantic relationship with Kissinger, the only official in the paranoid Nixon Administration who would talk to him. Kissinger wrapped Reston around his finger, going so far as to get him to serve as a delivery boy. During an interview with Fidel Castro, Reston once paused to declare: "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."
Stacks's message in all this for modern-day journalism? Not what you might think. He notes that Reston ultimately became too close to those in power. But "his core notion that those in government, more often than not, were trying to do the right thing for the United States of America" might serve us all better after September 11 than the "corrosively reciprocal cynicism" that has come to characterize press-government relations. Sad to say, Stacks sees few signs that things are changing. A good starting point might be to have both press and government officials read this engrossing and thoughtful volume.
By Douglas Harbrecht