A giant of print

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SOME years ago a writer for one of the newsmagazines called me to talk about columnists of the day. She was doing a piece on which of them was up, and which of them was down. When I lauded James (Scotty) Reston of the New York Times, she interrupted: ``But isn't he over the hill?'' Reston, the giant, over the hill? The thought was appalling and not very perceptive. Or perhaps it was just intended to be provocative.

True, there are other, more flamboyant columnists on the scene. There is the predictable liberal outrage of Tony Lewis. There is the huffing, but oh so articulate, conservatism of George Will. There are the verbal and ideological fireworks of Bill Safire, who is sometimes so right, and sometimes so wrong, but who is never dull.

But Reston is Reston. So sane. So wise. So compassionate in a broad sense even when disgusted by individual failings and foibles. And in Scotty Reston's farewell column in the Times last Sunday, he put his typing finger on what I think I like most about him. He is, he wrote, an ``up-to-date, stick-in-the-mud optimist.''

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Scotty is my kind of journalist: skeptical, but not cynical. He is cleareyed about the faults in our system and can bring a smoking typewriter to bear upon them. But he believes in the system's genius and ultimate durability.

Of course, I am a little ambivalent about Scotty. He is a Scotsman-turned-American. Like me, a Welshman-turned-American, that means he has a special affection for the homeland he chose, rather than the one he inherited. But he is, after all, a Scotsman born, and that makes him a little suspect in Welsh eyes.

The Welsh are a dark, brooding, sentimental race of poets and rugby players, while the pragmatic and industrious Scots, even with their sometimes unintelligible accent, seem to end up running things, whether it be the government in London, or stockbrokers' offices in Texas, or power stations in Africa.

A Welsh uncle of mine, a war hero with a Welsh regiment, once told me straight-facedly: ``There is only one problem with the Welsh; there are not enough of us.'' I have since wondered whether the problem is not so much numbers as the fact that the Welsh are out there musing while the Scots are working.

Anyway, though Scotty Reston never seemed to warm to being a top executive in New York, he certainly ran a creative news bureau in Washington.

Clearly he enjoyed writing words more than speaking them. I remember his cry of anguish in one column when the New York Times Times was on strike and he could not get the paper delivered to his doorstep. ``For,'' as he wrote, ``how do I know what I think till I read what I wrote?''

But he could be mischievous as well as wise. One year when we were both on the Pulitzer board, he made all of those journalistic luminaries write down their predictions of the outcome of next year's Ford-Carter presidential election. He kept them, and produced them triumphantly a year later to show how wrong most editors can be.

Scotty owned a weekly newspaper on Martha's Vineyard at a time when I owned weekly newspapers on Cape Cod. I used to tease him with the warning that we were coming over to set up shop on the island and give him some competition. ``Set one foot on the Vineyard,'' growled Scotty, ``and we'll blow you out of the water.''

His mock-machoism extended to the immediacy of his relationship with his local readers. Write a controversial column for the Times about arms control, he used to say, and maybe you'd get 20 critical letters from readers. But write something in the Vineyard Gazette on some local issue that readers didn't like ``and you get a punch in the nose.''

Of course, nobody ever really punched Scotty Reston in the nose.

How could you get that mad with a ``stick-in-the-mud optimist''?

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