Journalist's thoughtful memoir; My Own, My Country's Time, by Vermont Royster. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books. 351 pp. $18.50.
Vermont Connecticut Royster - the name seems better suited to a New England aristocrat than a newspaperman. But then the native North Carolinian is an aristocrat of sorts in the journalistic community. During his distinguished career with the Wall Street Journal he won nearly every conceivable award, including a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1953. In 1978, the National Press Club in Washington presented him with its Fourth Estate Award ''for a lifetime of service to journalism.'' A year later, he was elected to the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame. Notwithstanding his celebrity, ''My Own, My Country's Time'' is a modest memoir from a man whose civility continues to complement his commentary. For, although Royster retired in 1971 and returned home to teach at the University of North Carolina, he still writes a weekly Journal column that illuminates current issues.
Born in 1914 in Raleigh, Royster lived for a while in Chapel Hill, where his father taught Greek and Latin at the University of North Carolina. Returning to Raleigh, where he graduated from high school, Royster then went to a Tennessee prep school, where he honed his language skills before entering the university at Chapel Hill. The brash young man made a name for himself on the Daily Tar Heel, first as a music critic and then as an editorial writer. He graduated in 1935 with a degree in classical languages - and no job prospects.
He struck out for New York City in search of fame and fortune, only to find sporadic employment as a busboy and in a bank. In 1936, he walked into the offices of the Wall Street Journal and convinced managing editor William Grimes that he could be of some use. Landing a job as a $15-a-week ''gofer'' with the fledgling financial daily (35,000 circulation), Royster began a professional odyssey that would take him to Washington a few months later, where he would eventually become the bureau chief.
Thereafter Royster was named the paper's associate editor and finally, in 1958, editor. He was instrumental in the growth of what is now the nation's largest daily newspaper, with a circulation of more than 2 million.
Along the way, he conferred with nine presidents and crossed the paths of the world's major political figures. His recollections of these, alone, are worth the price of the book. Recalling colorful politicos of the past, Royster concludes that Congress will probably never again see the likes of such firebrands as Tom Connally of Texas and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi. He also regrets that presidential press conferences have become staged and sterile affairs compared with the days when FDR called the ''boys'' into the Oval Office for some sparkling repartee.
In fact, Royster considers FDR to have been one of the two greatest presidents of the past half century because of his feel for the executive office and the enduring legacy of New Deal reforms. Royster's second choice is Dwight D. Eisenhower: ''Because he did the least damage of any president (and) left behind the fewest problems for his successors.'' Harry Truman, he says, ''had a poor grasp of economics'' and was prone to think in 1930s terms, but managed to confront the communist challenge in a manner that will ensure his place in history.
Royster believes that John Kennedy thoroughly enjoyed the office and had the capacity to excel because he was shrewd enough to court party leaders while appearing to be a political maverick. Royster's respect for Richard Nixon stems from his refusal to contest the 1960 election results, even though there were blatant voting irregularities in Texas and Illinois. Lyndon Johnson, he laments, was the eternal outsider, whose presidency was doomed in large part by his enormous ego. Jimmy Carter is viewed as a perplexing paradox, whose vision was never translated into a coherent program.
Royster has a particular affinity for Gerald Ford because the vice-president consented to an interview with him two days before Richard Nixon resigned from office. While conceding that Ford fumbled the pardon announcement, Royster nonetheless insists that it was the right decision for a country racked by Watergate. And, although the author reserves judgment on Ronald Reagan, he suggests that the nation's 40th President has a feel for office reminiscent of FDR.
Royster's perspective on the presidency is well worth remembering:
''As a people, we always expect too much of our presidents, especially when they first come to office. We suppose that with a few commands, as by some magic wand, they can cure all of the ailments of the country at once. The truth is otherwise, the presidency being in fact an office of limited powers. If the incumbent has the wisdom of Solomon, he still needs time, patience, and political skill to change much of anything. This is doubly true when the national government is divided between the two major parties. . . .''
For this and countless other observations, Vermont Royster's thoughtful memoir is an invaluable resource, to be read for pleasure and referred to in the years to come as a trenchant analysis of our times.