A Top-Drawer Newsman
James Reston shares impressions culled during years of reporting
DEADLINE. By James Reston, Random House, 525 pp., $25SOMETIME back in the 1970s, Time magazine ran a cover story on James (Scotty) Reston captioned, "The World's Greatest Reporter." The reason this reviewer cannot give the exact date of the remarkable tribute is that it is not even mentioned in this modest and absorbing autobiography by the celebrated New York Times newspaperman. The title itself is something of a misnomer. Now for the first time in 60 years, Reston is not writing to meet a deadline. The reminiscences are interspersed with leisurely and wholly delightful comments on a number of things, such as the state of the Union and its future, and the familial joys of working for the Times. In a larger sense, the title is appropriate, for Reston's whole life was focused on his trade and the heart of the matter was the delivering of his copy within the requisite time frame. He also reminds us that in the crisis years of the 20th century, the nation itself was under continuing pressure, and meeting its own series of deadlines. His family immigrated from Scotland when he was a boy. He broke into newspapering by caddying for an Ohio publisher, and it was in Ohio that he met and married Sally Fulton, his lifelong inspiration. By 1937, he was covering sports in England for the Associated Press as the war tensions grew. What was I doing, he asked himself, "in this mad corner of the world, chasing golfers and tennis players on the edge of the precipice?" What he was doing was sharpening his skills of style and observation. One object of his special scrutiny was Joseph P. Kennedy, the United States ambassador in London at the time but not really Franklin D. Roosevelt's man at all: "a recklessly charming, intelligent, handsome man who ... worked hard and had many other admirable qualities, but judgment wasn't one of them." On Sept. 1, 1939, two days before war broke out, Reston shifted to the Times' London bureau. From then on, with time out for a short wartime tour with the US Information Agency and two stints as an executive in the Times' home office, the world was his beat, and the men and women in the high, windy places of power his main preoccupation. He has a special feeling for presidents, and his summary of them is a good example of Restonese, in its shrewdness and easy style: "In general, the most successful of them, I thought, were the cheerful optimists, who appointed competent advisers and listened to them: Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. The least successful were the pessimists, who assumed the worst in everybody and didn't listen to anybody: Nixon and Johnson. And the only trouble with this conclusion, as with most of my generalizations, was that there was always something to be said on the other side. Reagan, for example, laughed at everything, listened to everybody, and gave optimism a bad name. Kennedy, who smiled a lot and appointed many intelligent people, was basically pessimistic and even skeptical about whether the American political system would work. Carter ... was probably more intelligent ... but he had no sense of humor and thought the people really wanted to hear the unvarnished facts - a dubious assumption." Reston's affection for Eisenhower appears often, and he ranks him very high: "unlike Truman and, later, Kennedy, Johnson, and Bush, who started their presidencies by getting into wars, Ike demonstrated a remarkable gift for staying out of them... ." Just after the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit meeting in Vienna in early June of 1961, Reston had a private interview with the young president. He found Kennedy shaken and angered by the Soviet's belligerence. He told Reston that "Khrushchev thought that anybody who had made such a mess of the Cuban invasion [the Bay of Pigs] had no judgment, and ... no guts." Kennedy's next comment cast long shadows of future danger and disaster: "It was now essential to demonstrate our firmness, and the place to do it, he remarked to my astonishment, was Vietnam! ... If he had said he was going to run the Communist blockade into Berlin, I might have understood, but the reference to Vietnam baffled me." The whole Vietnamese quagmire was abhorrent to Reston's tidy Scotch soul. His terse conclusion late in the war was that "With the bombing of targets on the outskirts of Hanoi and Haiphong it [the Johnson government] had now done almost everything it said it wouldn't do, except bomb China. It said it was not seeking a military solution to the war, and it was obviously seeking precisely that. It said it was there merely to help a legitimate government defend itself, and it ended up by supporting a military clique that was not a government, not legitimate, and not really defending itself." There is one false note in the Vietnam coverage. Reston refers to Diem, the chief of state, as "feckless," which Webster defines as "spiritless, weak, worthless." The murdered leader may have been narrow of vision, but he was tigerish in the defense of his own turf. Akin to the journalist's presidential insights are his views on the secretaries of state during his long watch: "Some of them (Hull and Stettinius) were chosen because they merely looked like secretaries of state; others (Byrnes and Baker) because they were clever politicians; and still others (Rusk and Haig) because their presidents thought foreign policy should be operated from the White House." Reston admired Dean Acheson greatly ("Everything about Acheson had a kind of personal grandeur"). As a first-generation American, he felt special kinship toward Kissinger ("He not only knew a lot about foreign affairs, he was a foreign affair"). The whole book is like a dinner party where good talk abounds. It is clear that Scotty Reston places service to the nation very high, and style in doing so, equally deserving. Reston has, like Othello once said, "done the state some service," and now we know it. But to understand his contribution, we must read between the lines of this sparkling memoir that is sure to become a role model for books about news reporting.