On June 4, 1961, John F. Kennedy held his last meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. The scheduled sessions had gone badly, both men playing a game of chicken as they moved from one contentious issue to another. After a final lunch in the Soviet embassy, Kennedy asked for one last private meeting in an effort to salvage some basic understanding between the two nations. He reminded the Soviet leader that each had the ability to destroy the other, then suggested that Khrushchev abandon his demands on Berlin, which the United States could not accept. Khrushchev countered by saying “force would be met by force” and that “if the US wants war, that’s its problem.” Kennedy was stunned. “Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be war,” Kennedy said. “It will be a cold winter.”
Ten minutes later, Kennedy entered the US Embassy and went straight to a room where James Reston, Washington bureau chief and columnist for the New York Times, was waiting with curtains drawn. By prior arrangement, Reston had managed to slip in unnoticed. How was it, Reston asked. “Worst thing in my life,” Kennedy responded honestly and without pretense. “He savaged me.” Kennedy seemed to be almost in shock as he proceeded, with astonishing candor, to give details of the meeting to the journalist. The United States would have to stand more firmly against Russian demands in Berlin and the escalating Communist insurgency in South Vietnam, Kennedy said. Reston was “speechless” at the mention of Vietnam. Reston later thought that marked the beginning of America’s slow slide into the Vietnam tragedy.
From the perspective of our own time, John Stacks writes, Reston’s encounter with Kennedy is “almost unimaginable,” because the relationship between journalists and politicians in America is often a distant and hostile one, marked by distrust and anger and cynicism. No reporter today would be trusted to hear an American President reacting honestly and without pretense to a frightening failure that could have presaged nuclear war. Nor is it likely that a reporter hearing such information without stated rules and restrictions would produce–as Reston did a day later–a carefully worded story putting the best positive construction on an unsuccessful summit without sacrificing its real implications and without compromising Kennedy’s confidences. But, as Stacks puts it, at the heart of Reston’s style of journalism was “a sense of common purpose with the government and political leaders.” The press and the government were seen by him as collaborators in one enterprise–the preservation of the United States.
For more than three decades Reston was the ultimate Washington insider. But first Vietnam, then Watergate, came along, and his unparalleled access to the high and mighty became a liability. His stellar career became sadly tarnished. His own colleagues turned on him in public, men whose careers he had nourished and supported. His analysis became suspect. He was seen as toadying during a tense and dramatic time. Once the very model of what young journalists wanted to be, he became the opposite: “a shill and an apologist.” Or as some of his Times colleagues said, Reston became “the personification of what the true journalist should not be.”
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Stacks has written an absorbing, thoughtful and eminently readable book. He treats his subject generously, turning him into a symbol of a long-gone Golden Age of journalism that was based on “trust” between government and the press. But then again, Stacks, a veteran Time journalist who eventually rose to become the magazine’s managing editor, is an establishment newspaperman in the Reston model who seems nostalgic for the days of crony journalism. “I do firmly believe that this nation would be better served if there were again Scotty Restons mining the inner workings of the government and telling us the truth about what they pry loose,” Stacks writes in the last sentence of his book. This may explain the rather bizarre subtitle of the volume: “James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism.”
But Stacks pulls no punches. His portrait of Reston is one of an ambitious Scottish immigrant whose education was skimpy but who was smart, witty, charming and endowed with the talent to suck up to the rich and powerful without seeming to do so. His prose was graceful and marked by a sense of balance and humanity. He was a consummate backscratcher. As a youth he befriended James Middleton Cox, the newspaper publisher and governor of Ohio, who loaned Reston money to attend the University of Illinois. Upon graduation Cox gave him a job at his paper, where Reston started as a sportswriter. He moved to the Associated Press in New York as a feature writer after that. In 1937 the AP sent him to London, where Reston charmed the New York Times bureau chief into hiring him in 1939. Ultimately he sucked up to the publisher of the Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and his wife, Iphigene, and was regarded as almost a family member. The Sulzberger relationship vaulted Reston into a unique position at the Times, where he could do practically whatever he wanted. Sulzberger once put it this way: “What’s Good For Reston Is Good For The Times.” Small wonder that Reston rose to the top of American journalism and that he was widely sought after by the rich and powerful. He counted among his sources people like Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, John McCloy and Henry Kissinger. Reston was also someone who could phone the President of the United States.
If there’s a weakness in this book it rests on the author’s own belief in the virtues of crony journalism, which means that a group of “responsible officials and responsible reporters” should decide among themselves what the public should be told. Reston’s “responsible reporters” are not “the old-fashioned scoop artists, gossip mongers and saloon rail journalists.”
But is it true, as Stacks asserts, that Reston was “so well respected by those in power” that they granted him “unimaginable access”? We don’t have to look beyond Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War to disprove this notion. (Bush went even further by supplying the author with contemporaneous National Security Council notes.) At issue here is not access. The question, rather, is whether an American President now would honestly admit to failure under similar bleak circumstances.
More important questions are not even asked. Did Kennedy arrange the secret meeting in Vienna to pick Reston’s brain? Reston had no special knowledge of Russia, nor was he an old friend of the President’s. More important, why didn’t Kennedy first discuss his frightening setback with his Secretary of State or other top advisers? Kennedy’s court biographer, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., doesn’t even mention this episode in his authoritative A Thousand Days.
Yet the meeting suggests that Kennedy was keenly aware of changes that the advent of television was bringing about in the relationship between government and the press. Displaying his good looks, his charm, his humor and his intelligence during regular televised press conferences, Kennedy was able to reach past the newspapers directly into people’s living rooms. He no longer needed the daily print press as badly as before. But he needed a handful of opinion-makers like Reston. Kennedy was his own public relations general. He understood that honesty is the best policy. He brought them inside the tent and seduced them with candor. He could count on their cooperation.
Kennedy used Reston for the most important missions: to signal his intentions to Moscow. Three months after the Vienna summit Kennedy invited Reston to his Hyannis Port home, where he told him to write on his own authority a two-part message. The first part was that the Kennedy Administration was prepared to go nuclear in order to retain access to Berlin. Khrushchev, Reston wrote, “would be well advised to take this into account” unless he wishes to preside over a “Soviet wasteland.” The apocalyptic message filed under the Hyannis Port dateline made headlines around the world. But the second part was more significant and was placed in the last paragraph–in Russian writing culture at that time the punch line was invariably in the concluding paragraphs. It was that Kennedy accepted Khrushchev’s concept of “peaceful coexistence.” Kennedy, Reston wrote, is ready to “accommodate himself to history on the basis of ‘co-existence.’ The question is whether Khrushchev will allow an honorable accommodation to take place.”
To insure that the message was absolutely correctly worded, Reston submitted the column for White House approval (with his editors concurring).
Submitting a news account for approval is a rather unprofessional thing to do, except that Reston and top Times editors saw themselves as players in the practical conduct of US policy. There are numerous other incidents that in retrospect seem questionable, to put it mildly. Early in his career, Reston helped Senator Arthur Vandenberg craft a speech in which the isolationist Republican recast himself as an internationalist and a godfather of the cold war bipartisan foreign policy. The Senator gave Reston fulsome credit, telling a news conference that the journalist had planted the idea of collective security against Soviet expansionism into his head. Vandenberg became an excellent source for Reston, especially after becoming the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. In May 1948 Reston wrote an article for Life arguing Vandenberg’s suitability to be Republican nominee for President.
Reston’s greatest “scoop”–or, as Stacks puts it, “journalism at its best”–was his acquisition in 1953 of a copy of the full record of the Yalta conference. The Eisenhower Administration wanted the record made public to counter its selective use by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who claimed it showed that Washington had rolled over for Stalin. The British government opposed full release, partly because of Churchill’s disparaging remarks about the French. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decided to send copies of the original document to twenty-four high-ranking members of Congress, knowing full well that someone would leak it to the press. Reston rushed to see Dulles and persuaded him that a “calculated leak” to the Times was a better idea. Reston won an Overseas Press Club award. He had won a Pulitzer Prize eight years earlier for a similar “scoop” when he obtained position papers about the negotiations to create the United Nations. The source was a member of the Chinese delegation and a former intern at the Times whose relatives had friendly ties to the Sulzbergers. The participating governments were outraged. Everybody suspected the British of leaking. An FBI investigation was ordered but soon abandoned. As a result, Reston became a figure on the Washington scene.
Was this prizewinning reporting? There were other stories in those years that Reston knew about and that should have been told but were not. The government deliberately used humans in radiation experiments; the CIA staged coups and political assassinations abroad while testing mind-control drugs on the unsuspecting at home. Dulles repeatedly told Reston about Senator McCarthy’s “lies and public drunkenness,” but Reston never used the material provided on background. Much later, in his memoirs, he wrote: “We were, I’m sorry to say, intimidated much of the time by the popularity of McCarthy’s lies and his charges that his opponents were ‘soft on communism.'”When a reporter began investigating rumors that Kennedy had been married before taking Jacqueline as his wife, Reston stopped the investigation. “I will not have the New York Times muckraking the president of the United States!” He later discouraged reporters from looking into the influence-peddling scandal involving Lyndon Johnson’s close aide, Bobby Baker, for fear of damaging the presidency. He was so dazzled by power that when Senator Edward Kennedy drove Mary Jo Kopechne to her death in the waters of Chappaquiddick in the summer of 1969, Reston, who was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, dictated this lead to the Times: “Tragedy has again struck the Kennedy family.” The victim was not mentioned until the fourth paragraph.Scotty at that point was the executive editor of the Times.
For a long time Reston was a player, yet not a fully uniformed member of the team. But that altered disastrously with his relationship with Henry Kissinger, when Reston was no longer an outsider with superb connections on the inside but a full-fledged insider: “the wrong place for a respected journalist to be,” says Stacks. Kissinger provided Reston with scoops, but he also used him for delivering messages to foreign governments and domestic rivals. In late 1976 Kissinger wanted to send a message to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Ford Administration’s outspoken UN ambassador–that he wanted him to resign. Reston’s chatty column said that President Ford and Kissinger, who publicly supported Moynihan, were in fact deploring him in private. Moynihan resigned his post the next day.
Reston’s best role was as a reporter and commentator on the game, not as the major player he was during his last two decades. It was as a reporter and commentator that he made a lasting impact on American journalism. He forced the Times to abandon its stodgy, dense style and to open its pages to pieces analyzing the most important news events. Soon most other papers began to emulate the Times; Stacks is hardly exaggerating when he says that Reston “revolutionized the style in which American newspapers are written.”He also helped raise the quality of journalism beyond what it had ever been before. He recruited talented young men (it was men, not women) to the shabby trade of newspapering, and together they turned it into something much more respectable and glamorous. His reporters received pay nearly equal to that of the people they covered. They understood the subjects they covered nearly as well as their sources and were sufficiently knowledgeable to place new information in context and make independent judgments about the truth of the matter and the likely consequences. They saw themselves as professionals with honor, and they were eager to uphold the unwritten standards that laid stress on basic integrity, accuracy, honesty and balanced judgment.
When he joined the AP in the late 1930s, there was little status attached to the reporter’s trade. Barriers to entry were so low that anyone with a certain facility with the English language could become a reporter. At social gatherings, admitting that one was a reporter was roughly like saying one was a mortician. By the time Reston was the at peak of his powers, journalism had become a “profession” and journalists saw themselves as keepers of public morals. Young journalists coming to Washington in the 1960s aspired to be Scotty Reston. But by the onset of the 1970s, he was no longer the standard of excellence. Soon, the irreverent young reporters who exposed the Watergate cover-up, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, became the models for young reporters everywhere. Reston’s devotion to his adopted country, his respect for authority, his belief in the system, all made him support the presidency. There was also an element of self-delusion involved. He trusted his sources, apparently believing he was too important to be lied to. He attacked Woodward’s book about the Supreme Court in 1979, which contained accounts of personal animosities among the Justices. “We are living in an age of destruction,” he argued. “Criticism…is going too far and undermining the institutions we need the most.”
It’s no secret that journalism in America is undergoing a serious crisis. The quality of journalism has suffered. The old professional standards are in tatters or discarded entirely. With a few exceptions, most journalists seem to me to operate in an ethical vacuum, while our editors, corporate owners and some distinguished practitioners go through contortions to pretend that the decline of journalism is caused by the fierce competition brought on by round-the-clock cable television and the instant communications of the cyberworld. I suspect this is only partly true. The best papers still care about ethics and quality. The number of newspapers, however, has been steadily declining, and four out of every five are owned by large, homogenized chains whose primary concern is the bottom line. Reporters like myself, who have been in the business for a while, talk frequently these days about avoiding certain topics that would clash with the financial interests of their organizations.
A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt thought the main issue of his day was the economic power of corporations, which was threatening democracy and had to be balanced in the interests of the general public. Big money and big business are again the undisputed masters of government, and none of them want a vigorous press. The ever-growing influence of television offers readily available means to influence the people who define the news and decide what to cover: Big Business has advertising, and the government can control who gets access to newsmakers. The result is lap-dog reporting, pack journalism and infotainment laced by the theatrics of punditry. Once again, journalism is no longer a profession but rather a trade almost without entry barriers. Everybody is welcome, from Sean Hannity to George Stephanopoulos to Ann Coulter to Oliver North. Journalists are increasingly seen as television windbags or scribblers hired to advance nakedly right-wing agendas. The slide into tabloid mindlessness seems so relentless that, reading Scotty, one begins to understand the full degradation of public dialogue in America.