Book Conversation: James “Scotty” Reston
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TERENCE SMITH: The book is “Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism.” It recounts the life and career of a man who was the most powerful, admired and influential newspaper columnist of his era. The author is John Stacks, himself a distinguished journalist who spent three decades as a reporter and editor for Time Magazine. John Stacks, welcome.
JOHN F. STACKS: Thank you, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: Scotty Reston, his life and times, I mean, it is a compelling story, but what prompted you to tell it, to write it? What were you trying to accomplish through the telling?
JOHN F. STACKS: When I first came to Washington, as you generously point out, three decades ago, Scotty Reston was the person everybody wanted to be. He was the most well connected, the most widely read and the most influential journalist in the city. When I left in the mid ’80s, Scotty’s career had been eclipsed and his reputation had been somewhat sullied. It really marked the end of an era in American journalism and I wanted to look back at that period and reconstruct it in a way that made it alive again.
TERENCE SMITH: Hence the subtitle “The Rise and Fall of American Journalism.” Are you equating the, two the rise and fall of Scotty Reston is the rise and fall of American journalism?
JOHN F. STACKS: To some extent, yes. I mean, Reston, when he started in the earl y ’40s at the New York Times – actually started in 1938 in London — was a force for the changing of the way American newspapering was done. He early on understood that newspapers in the broadcast era could not be the first with the news. They had to be the most analytic. He pressed the New York Times and he succeeded in that, in changing the way news is written and he opened the door for a whole generation or two generations of news writers who were, like him and that is much more analytical in their approach.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell us a little about the man and his magic as a journalist.
JOHN F. STACKS: Reston had an ability, as one of his colleagues said, not just the abilities of a good reporter to get sources to talk to him but he had the ability to get people to want to talk to him. I mean, Reston became a kind of confessor for hosts of political figures and statesmen. People wanted to talk to Reston partly because they wanted to get his ideas back, partially because they knew that he would represent their ideas fairly and with a sense of balance and moderation and partly because Reston was like a pollinator inside the government. He would move from one branch of the government to another. He actually became a way for the government to talk to itself.
TERENCE SMITH: And he ingratiated himself with presidents and publishers, of course, in a way in which they trusted him.
JOHN F. STACKS: Well, the book actually begins with a remarkable story in 1961 when Jack Kennedy had just finished the disastrous summit meeting with Khrushchev. The first person Jack Kennedy talked to was Scotty of the New York Times a stunning and unimaginable event today. But Reston was that trusted that the president of the United States gave him a candid picture of how difficult that summit had been. Reston then proceeded to write brilliantly nuanced pieces over the next two days that any reader of the New York Times would have come away from knowing exactly how difficult this was without ever mentioning that he had seen the president.
TERENCE SMITH: But the president trusted him, I gather, also not to hurt him. In other words, he could share this confidence with him because in a sense– is this correct? — Scotty Reston would protect him.
JOHN F. STACKS: Well, not so much protect him because the stories that Scotty wrote after that summit were not complementary of Jack Kennedy. He painted a very bleak picture of the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union at that point and implicit in that was Kennedy’s ability to handle Khrushchev. This was not a piece of puffery by Reston at all but an accurate and subtle account of very important moment in American history. And Reston repeated that over and over.
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned at one point in the book, I made a note that Scotty believed that the government should and could work together for the common good. Contrast that attitude with what prevails today among journalists.
JOHN F. STACKS: Reston basically believed that the government and the press were all part of the American apparatus, that we were all in this together. Of course, that was understandable in the Cold War. He believed… he started his reporting every day, I think believing that public officials were trying to do the right thing, whether he agreed with them or not. He didn’t begin the day thinking that they were trying to manipulate him or trying to deceive the American people. That, I think, has changed. I think both on the political side, the government side and on the press side there is a kind of mutual suspicion and cynicism that is quite destructive.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
JOHN F. STACKS: Why has that happened?
TERENCE SMITH: Yes.
JOHN F. STACKS: I think it began, of course, in Vietnam and it got worse in Watergate. I think partially because the age of the columnist of the print journalist has been eclipsed by television. The government and politicians understand that they can get their message directly through pictures to the people and the need to cultivate and to talk to in a textured way through the print medium has been diminished.
TERENCE SMITH: You said at the beginning that after this huge rise, tremendous rise, there was a period in which he was eclipsed here in Washington. Tell me what you mean by that.
JOHN F. STACKS: In 1972, actually in 1969 Reston returned to Washington after a brief and unsuccessful stint at the executive editor of the Times in New York. And then that return coincided with the Nixon administration. You know this period because you worked at the times at that point. At that period the game had changed. The president certainly wasn’t accessible to Reston or to any journalist. The people in the white house like Halderman totally impossible to talk to on a daily basis or a weekly basis. The only source Reston really had was Henry Kissinger who at that point was national security advisor. He used that source and Kissinger then used him, I think, to deceive both Reston and the American people about his real role inside the Nixon administration.
TERENCE SMITH: So, in other words, a two-way street there and yet Scotty Reston was criticized, was he not, for his… what was seen as excessive closeness to Kissinger.
JOHN F. STACKS: The game had changed. In the old days Reston would have had two or three sources that he would have talked to about a critical piece of information. Kissinger was a monopoly of information for Reston and it was hard to check it. He believed in Kissinger. Reston was certainly not the only person that Kissinger deceived in the American press but he was the most prominent. I think that deception and Reston’s having fallen for it sullied Reston’s reputation and hastened this sense of alienation between the press and the government.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there anyone like him today in American journalism or Washington journalism?
JOHN F. STACKS: There’s certainly many people as talented as Scotty Reston was perhaps not as talented in the ability to people to get people to talk to them but again it’s a different game. But again the game… there are many, many very, very bright people. One of the things that’s remarkable when you look back at Reston’s career is how untalented the press was when he began, that is, in the 1930s. And when he came to Washington in 1941, the press corps in Washington was pathetic, to put it mildly. Reston stood head and shoulders above most of them. Today I think the talent level is even deeper and stronger. But again because of this hostility, the ability to find out what’s going on inside the government, what the thinking processes are, what the influences are, is much diminished.
TERENCE SMITH: So finally and briefly, what’s the lasting contribution?
JOHN F. STACKS: I think when you look back at Reston’s career and what I tried to do in this book was to show how fabulous his reporting was when he was in his heyday and how much the country benefited from that kind of information, that kind of subtlety. And I think we’re missing that today.
TERENCE SMITH: John Stacks, thanks so much.
JOHN F. STACKS: Thank you, Terry.