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Reston, James Barrett

(b. 3 November 1909 in Clydebank, Scotland; d. 6 December 1995 in Washington, D.C), influential correspondent, columnist, Washington bureau chief, executive editor, and vice president of the New York Times.

Reston was the second of two children of James Reston, a machinist, and Johanna Irving, a homemaker. At the age of two, Reston emigrated with his family from Scotland to Dayton, Ohio, to escape poverty. Homesickness and a family quarrel soon sent them back to Scotland. They returned to the United States when Reston was eleven, and he was naturalized when his parents became citizens in 1927. He acquired his lifelong nickname, “Scotty,” while a boy in Dayton. His devout Presbyterian mother hoped that he would grow up to preach to the heathen, and Reston later mused that he accomplished this by becoming a columnist.

Reston’s father worked for Delco Remy, a subsidiary of General Motors, and after graduating in 1927 from Oak-wood High School, Reston spent a year editing the factory newspaper, Delco Doings. He also caddied at a local golf course, where he met James Middleton Cox, the publisher of the Cox newspapers. In 1928 he entered the University of Illinois School of Journalism at Urbana-Champaign, where he was an indifferent student, devoting most of his attention to the golf team and sports reporting for the campus paper. When Reston’s tuition check bounced in his senior year due to a bank failure, the university asked him to leave. He hastily secured a loan from Cox, who also promised him a job after graduation. On earning a B.S. degree in 1932, Reston began working as a sports reporter for Cox’s Springfield (Ohio) Daily News. In 1933 Reston became a publicity agent for the Ohio State University athletic department and in 1934 for the Cincinnati Reds baseball club. He moved to New York City in 1934 as an Associated Press (AP) sportswriter. In 1935 he married his college sweetheart, Sarah Jane (”Sally”) Fulton. They had three sons.

The AP sent Reston to London in 1937 to cover major sporting events and to report on the British Foreign Office during the off-season. His golfing skills helped him cultivate friendships with officials who kept him well informed. Impressed with his reporting, the New York Times London correspondent hired Reston as his assistant. He joined the staff of the Times on 1 September 1939, the day World War II began.

Covering the German blitz of London shaped Reston’s worldview and sharpened his writing skills. In his wartime book Prelude to Victory (1942), he blamed Britain and the United States for having “underestimated the price of freedom” through appeasement, isolationism, and a lack of military preparedness. As a war correspondent, he tried to write as if sending a letter to a friend back home and displayed an ability to synthesize complex issues into straightforward prose. When undulant fever sent him home in 1940, Reston was assigned to the New York Times Washington bureau. In 1942 he took a leave of absence to run the U.S. Office of War Information operations in London. Later that year Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger invited Reston to become his personal assistant and brought him on a mission to Moscow for the American Red Cross. Visiting the offices of the Soviet newspaper Pravda, Reston was startled to find that all of its “news” came over the wire from government offices. He resisted the notion of the press as an instrument of government and long struggled with defining the proper relations between reporters and officials.

A liberal internationalist, Reston saw journalism as a moral force for educating readers and furthering the public interest. His idealism and professionalism impressed Sulzberger, who insisted that Reston be reinstated in the Times Washington bureau, over the objections of its conservative bureau chief, Arthur Krock. Although Krock disapproved of Reston’s desire to write news analysis instead of strictly objective reporting, he relented when he learned that Reston was considering writing a column for the rival New York Herald-Tribune. Reston became one of the first reporters at the Times with license to speculate on the mood in Washington and the motives of officials. In 1945 the Michigan Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg credited Reston with having influenced his celebrated speech announcing his abandonment of isolationism. Vandenberg kept Reston supplied with inside information from the State Department, bolstering his image as a “scoop artist,” always eager to be first with a story.

Sent to gather news at the embassies, Reston covered the Dumbarton Oaks Conference that convened in 1945 in Washington to plan for the formation of the United Nations. Among members of the Nationalist Chinese delegation, he encountered a former apprentice at the Times, Chen Yi, who obliged him with copies of each nation’s proposals. In 1945 the Times published one position paper each day, beating its competitors and outraging the assembled diplomats. The series won Reston his first Pulitzer Prize and promotion to diplomatic correspondent.

Short, stocky, and ruddy, Reston balanced his ample ability and self-confidence with humility and wry self-deprecation. He developed unparalleled access to the highest government officials in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, employing his wit, instinct, and empathy to coax out news. His sources cooperated out of respect for his talent, discretion, and prestigious news outlet.

In 1953, when the Washington Post sought to make Reston its editorial page editor, Krock stepped aside to allow him to become the Times Washington bureau chief. Reston recruited a talented team of reporters for the bureau, among them Russell Baker, Max Frankel, David Halberstam, Anthony Lewis, Neil Sheehan, and Tom Wicker. They became collectively known as “Scotty’s Boys” and “Reston’s Rangers.” The bureau also included some able women reporters, Marjorie Hunter, Nan Robertson, and Eileen Shanahan, but Reston invited only the men to councils in his office and to lunch at the Metropolitan Club (which did not admit women). Beyond managing the bureau, he regularly wrote the Times lead stories from Washington and an editorial page column.

Reston often irritated presidents by publishing information before they wanted it released. He believed that in a democracy people had a right to know what their government was planning to do, and that the Times needed to anticipate developments rather than react after the fact. Various administrations also used him as a conduit. In 1955 the State Department covertly provided Reston with the Yalta Papers, which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wanted published despite objections from the British. Reston’s quest for such insider information required that he maintain confidences and sometimes suppress major stories. He learned that American U-2 planes were flying high-altitude reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union but held back on publication until the Russians shot down one of the planes.

In 1961 New York Times reporter Tad Szulc uncovered evidence that the Central Intelligence Agency had trained a brigade of Cuban refugees to invade Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Reston persuaded Times publisher Orvil Dryfoos to mute the story, over objections from the paper’s editors. Reston reasoned that premature publication would more likely damage the Times than the invasion. Not even the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion changed his mind, although afterward he called for greater press skepticism of government policies. President John F. Kennedy personally called Reston in 1962 to ask that the Times not publish an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis until after he had formally addressed the nation. Once again the Times complied.

Although he accepted U.S. leadership in the cold war against communism as an imperative, Reston never felt comfortable with the rationales offered for military intervention in Southeast Asia. After touring South Vietnam in 1965, he returned deeply disturbed over the war’s futile brutality. President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to court his favor, but while Reston supported the social reforms of Johnson’s Great Society, his criticism of the war soured their relationship. Johnson indignantly complained that after Reston and the columnist Walter Lippmann turned against the war, the rest of the Washington press corps followed their lead.

Reston visited the People’s Republic of China in 1971, months in advance of President Richard Nixon. His articles from Beijing included an account of his emergency appendectomy, aided by acupuncture. That year, the New York Times obtained a copy of the classified Pentagon Papers, a massively documented analysis of how the United States had gotten into the Vietnam War. Reston urged its publication and threatened that if the Times failed to act he would print the material in the Vineyard Gazette, the weekly Martha’s Vineyard paper that his family had run since 1968. A court injunction halted the Pentagon Papers after the first installments appeared, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. New York Times Company (1971), rejected the government’s attempt at prior restraint.

Reston stepped down as the bureau chief in 1964 to devote full attention to his thrice-a-week column, “Washington.” In 1968, when editors in New York tried to remove his successor, Tom Wicker, and impose their own candidate to head the Washington bureau, Reston exerted his personal prestige and convinced Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, son of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, to reverse the decision. In the management shake-up that followed, Reston returned to New York as the executive editor, enabling him to sidetrack his opponents and facilitate a smoother transition in the Washington bureau. He reduced the semiofficial pronouncements that had filled the paper and emphasized thoughtful explanations of events. Although he commuted to Washington weekly, his column suffered. After eighteen months, he extracted himself from editing, became vice president for news coverage, and returned to Washington, where he wrote his column until his retirement in 1989.

Reston’s other writings included the books Walter Lippmann and His Times (1959); Sketches in the Sand (1967); The Artillery of the Press: Its Influence on American Foreign Policy (1967); The New York Times Report from Red China (1971); and Washington (1986). He died of cancer in Washington, D.C.

During Reston’s fifty years with the New York Times, influential readers at home and abroad paid close attention to his reporting. His critics considered him too intimate with top government officials, yet his columns held political leaders to high standards and pulled no punches whenever they disappointed him. One of the most respected journalists of his era, Reston encouraged a greater sense of responsibility in the press and relished its role as adversary.

Reston’s papers are in the University of Illinois Library, Urbana-Champaign. His autobiography is Deadline: A Memoir (1991). Reviews of his career by colleagues at the New York Timesinclude Arthur Krock, Memoirs (1968); Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power (1969); Bill Lawrence, Six Presidents, Too Many Wars (1972); Harrison Salisbury, Without Fear or Favor (1980); Russell Baker, The Good Times (1989); Nan Robertson, The Girls in the Balcony (1992); John Corry, My Times (1993); and Max Frankel, The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times (1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Dec. 1995).

Donald A. Ritchie

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James Barrett Reston

The American journalist James Barrett Scotty Reston (1909-1995) was one of the most important political commentators in the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s. His column in the New York Times was widely read by leading politicians and diplomats.

Born November 3, 1909, in Clydebank, Scotland, James Barrett ("Scotty") Reston was the second child of James and Johanna Reston. His family emigrated to the United States in 1920 and settled in Dayton, Ohio. Raised in a strict Presbyterian home, Reston thought seriously of becoming a preacher. He also considered a career as a professional golfer but ultimately went into journalism and became recognized as one of the nation's foremost political writers.

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1932, Reston took a job as a sportswriter for the Springfield (Ohio) Daily News. He then worked for the Ohio State University sports publicity office and as a press secretary for the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. In 1934 he accepted a position with Associated Press in New York writing sports features and a column, "A New Yorker at Large." He was sent to London in 1937 to cover international sporting events and the British foreign office.

In 1939 Scotty Reston was hired by the New York Times to work in its London bureau. In 1941 he was covering the State Department in Washington, D.C. After publishing the book Prelude to Victory (1942), in which he stressed that the war effort must be a national crusade, he went to London to help organize the U.S. Office of War Information.

He returned to Washington, D.C., as the Times' diplomatic correspondent in 1944. While covering the Dumbarton Oaks conference which organized the United Nations, he obtained a full set of top-secret Allied position papers from an unhappy Chinese delegation. This major scoop earned him the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

A successful and valued reporter, Reston was named Washington bureau chief in 1953. He recruited a team of interns and young writers who formed an enterprising and powerful staff and developed into leading national journalists. While supervising the office he still managed to write about 5,000 words a week. In 1957 he received a second Pulitzer Prize for a series on America's lack of national purpose. Featured in a Time magazine cover story in early 1960, he was called "a crack reporter, a good writer, a thoughtful columnist and an able administrator of the biggest bureau in Washington."

In March 1960 Reston began the thrice-weekly political column which solidified his stature as one of Washington's most influential journalists. In the introduction to a collection of his essays, Sketches in the Sand (1967), he observed that columns are motivated by a wide range of objectives, from ideological interpretation to investigation. He saw his own purpose as if he were writing an informative letter to a thoughtful friend. Life magazine described it as "a highly intelligent summary of what policy makers are thinking and worrying about; Reston does not so much argue for or against their policies as clarify them with a readable prose style and stamp them with his own healthy point of view."

Distinguishing his style from another pre-eminent columnist, Walter Lippmann, who was known as a systematic thinker, Reston acknowledged that he did not profess a particular philosophy. "I'm a reporter of other men's ideas," he said. Critics and admirers both agree that Reston had the ability to cultivate powerful political figures such as Henry Kissinger.

Coming from a poor immigrant background, Reston saw America as a land of opportunity. Expecting its leaders to act in an exemplary manner, he was deeply disappointed after the bombings of Cambodia and the Watergate affair. Yet, a conservative man with traditional values, he was optimistic about the country's future.

Based on a moral outlook reflecting his Calvinist roots, Reston's message of hope appealed to the Sulzberger family which owned the Times. There was always mutual affection between the Times and Reston. According to one journalist, Reston "is not so much a man of the left or right as he is a man of the Times."

In 1960 Reston cautioned the Times not to print advance information it held about the imminent Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1965 Reston toured South Vietnam to take a personal look at the war. In 1967 he delivered a series of lectures which were published as The Artillery of the Press: Its Influence on American Foreign Policy in which he advocated a more skeptical and less nationalistic role for the press. In 1971 he recommended that the Times publish the secret study of the Vietnam War, The Pentagon Papers. Later that year, at the height of his influence, he visited the People's Republic of China and conducted the first indepth interview of Premier Chou En-lai.

In 1964 Reston gave up his position as Washington bureau chief in order to become associate editor and devote more time to his column. In 1968 he served briefly as executive editor in New York before returning to Washington as vice president in charge of news production. After 1974 Reston was a director of the New York Times Company while continuing to write his column. In 1987 he gave up his regular column and retired except for writing a piece only now and then. In 1991, he wrote Deadline, a memoir of his life.

He was a stocky man with a square, reddish face. He married Sarah Jane Fulton in 1935 and they had three sons. They lived in Washington, D.C., but spent time in Fiery Run, Virginia, and in Martha's Vineyard, where Reston bought the weekly paper in 1968.

In addition to his Pulitzer Prizes Reston received many journalism awards and honorary degrees, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Roosevelt Four Freedom medal, and the Commander, Order of the British Empire. James Reston died on December 8, 1995.

Further Reading

For Reston's own writings, see his collection of essays Sketches in the Sand (1967) and The Artillery of the Press (1967). He is frequently cited in two books about The New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese (1966) and Without Fear or Favor by Harrison E. Salisbury (1980). He wrote his memoirs in a book titled Deadline (1991). □

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