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Reston on His Laurels

On the subject of James Reston, almost everyone in "Washington" seems to agree on three things. The first is that he is one of the top journalists of his time. To most of his readers, Reston is merely the senior columnist of America's premier newspaper, the New York Times, but in his younger days he was much more than that. He was a first-rate reporter, who probably broke more big news stories than anyone before or since. His first big scoop came in 1944, when he got hold of the full position papers of all the parties attending the Dumbarton Oaks conference (which laid the groundwork for the United Nations), an exclusive that won him the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. Later John Foster Dulles gave him the secret Yalta papers. By 1953 Reston ("Scotty" to everyone in "Washington") had become so big a star that when the Washington Post tried to lure him away, Washington bureau chief Arthur Krock, then 66, gave up his own job to keep the 43-year-old reporter aboard. That position, combined with the column he began writing the same year, gave Reston unrivalled access and influence. It also gave him the attention of presidents, Eisenhower, angered by something Reston had written, delivered a line now famous in journalistic circles: "Who does Scotty Reston think he is, telling me how to run the country?" In 1960 he was the subject of a Time magazine cover story—an honor accorded few members of the working press—which described him as a "crack reporter, a good writer, a thoughtful columnist, and an able administrative chief of the biggest newspaper bureau in Washington," Any number of journalists who grew up during Reston's heyday have adopted him as their role model. My colleague Morton Kondracke even confessed to me that for years he carried a photograph of Reston in his wallet, "for inspiration."

Everyone also agrees that Reston is a thoroughly nice man, which isn't necessarily what one expects of those at the top of their professions in the nation's capital. Asked what sort of person he is, one Times man says simply, "Wonderful," Another, asked the same question, says, "What can I say without sounding dopey? He's a very nice man," It's hard to find anyone in Washington who genuinely dislikes Reston, even among his critics. The reason is that he takes great care to treat people graciously, even when he doesn't need to.

Linda Greenhouse, now the Times's Supreme Court reporter, started her Times career as Reston's assistant or "clerk." (Reston adopts promising young journalists for one-year stints at this position, modeled after Supreme Court clerkships. He got the idea from Felix Frankfurter,) Greenhouse says that on her first day Reston asked her to call Ted Sorenson who he said could be reached through Paul Weiss, She called every Paul Weiss in the Manhattan phone book but found no trace of Sorenson, When she told Reston (she recounts in a recent festschrift by former Reston clerks), "he didn't groan, tear his hair, or—more important, and the reason for my undying gratitude—laugh at me. He gently explained that Paul, Weiss was a New York law firm where Ted Sorenson was working, looked up the number and gave it to me." J, Anthony Lukas, a former Times reporter, wrote an unflattering profile of Reston (who had recruited him) for [MORE] magazine in 1973, Nervous about how it would be received, he sent Reston a copy with a note saying, "Whatever you may feel about this piece, I want you to know it was written with respect and affection," Reston wrote back to say he saw nothing wrong with the article and invited Lukas to dinner the next time he was in Washington.

But there is a third thing that most of his colleagues in Washington agree on. At least nowadays, his column isn't very good. "The column isn't consistently as excellent as it used to be" is how Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Star, Reston's first clerk, delicately phrases it. Others are not so charitable. Reston takes little notice of such criticism. "Some things give you satisfaction and guidance, and the main thing is the respect of your colleagues," he says, confident that he enjoys that respect. But the flaws in his column are both real and serious. Reston is 71 years old, and has been at it three times a week for 27 years. Acknowledging that this has gotten to be a strain, Reston says he plans to cut back to two times a week later this year, (He says he has no interest in retiring to write his memoirs.) But there are flaws in his column that cannot be explained by the innate limits of the format, or excused by advancing age.

Reston, like any columnist, has a few pet themes and devices that pop up repeatedly in columns on almost any topic, as a substitute for thought. One favorite is his capsule summary of the "mood in Washington," which he usually employs as the first sentence in the column, like this: "This city these days somehow seems happier in sort of a goofy way than it has in a long time," Or this: "Washington is now wondering whether Carter was too naive and trusting with Brezhnev, and is now over-reacting to Brezhnev's lunge into Afghanistan." Or this: "The mood of Washington has changed in the last few days," Reston's knack for succinctly capturing the innermost feelings of millions of people is not limited to Washington. Last year he began one column, "You cannot come to London these days without feeling that everything looks the same but is somehow quite different."

Then there are the metaphors, which in Reston's lexicon consist of only two: sports and the weather. The former presumably go back to his early days as an Associated Press sportswriter. Of the presidential primaries he wrote last October, "These are not the playoffs but the tryouts." John Connally, he said, "always passes on first down." Some Republicans, he noted, think "the GOP, like the Washington Redskins, needs to draft younger and more imaginative men who can get into the playoffs in the 1980s," The weather is never far from Reston's mind, "The sense of relief [in "Washington"] is as clear here as the Indian summer sunshine," he wrote last fall. Sometimes he even manages to combine his favorite devices, as he did last November: "The mood of officials in Moscow seems almost as bleak as the weather," When I interviewed Reston, he told me he was thinking of three possibilities for his next column: Walter Mondale, Lloyd Cutler, or a star magnolia tree on the White House grounds as a symbol of renewal and hope. When it appeared, the column began, "There are no roses in the White House garden yet, but at the northeast gate there is an old arthritic star magnolia tree. . . ."

Then there is the old threat-from-within-or-threat-from-without construct. In January, Reston praised Edward Kennedy for raising "the question of whether the threat to the nation comes from abroad—in Iran and Afghanistan—or whether, as Lincoln suggested, that it lies within ourselves." In February he commended John Anderson for recognizing that "the red ink in our economy is probably going to be more of a threat to the security of the Republic than the Red Army in Afghanistan."

But Reston's favorite theme is that things aren't as bad as they seem, " . . . in the perspective of the century, with its World Wars and depressions, our present troubles, bad as they are, are not all that tragic," he wrote cheerfully in December, In his last column of 1975, he wrote, "It wasn't our best year, but at least we struggled." And just a few weeks ago he wrote a column in the form of a letter to his new grandson, in which he noted, "Half the human race was going to bed hungry every night when you were born, and the nations were still spending over $600 billion a year on guns of one sort or another, but my guess is that, in your own time, they may come to their senses," On what he bases this guess, he does not reveal.

Any columnist is doomed to repeat himself occasionally and to overuse a few devices, though not all can get away with it as brazenly as Reston. But it isn't foreordained that any columnist has to be so gentle with those he disagrees with, so reverent toward those in power, or so uncritical a voice for those sources on whom he relies for his exclusive interviews. One Times colleague characterizes Reston as "a gentleman," That is the best description of Reston as a person, and it also captures all his strengths and weaknesses as a journalist. As one would expect of a gentleman, Reston is a gracious and considerate man, his one real failing in this regard being his rather traditional view of the role of women. But his gentlemanliness spills over into his work as well—and usually with unfortunate results, Reston is the sort of gentleman in public life Henry Stimson had in mind when he said (objecting to American spies breaking enemy codes), "Gentlemen don't read other people's mail." Nor do gentlemen, when they settle down to column-writing, go out of their way to attack adversaries, to alienate valuable sources, or even to take strong and controversial positions. All these gentlemanly flaws mar Reston's work. And over the years his gentlemanliness has drawn him closer and closer to those people whose actions he is supposed to report, interpret, and criticize, until he often is reduced to acting as the establishment's conduit to people who care what the establishment thinks, "The Times always had a tradition of the head of the bureau in any capital acting as a semi-official spokesman, even in Moscow," says one veteran Washington newsman, "and in some ways Scotty follows in that tradition," Mrs. John Harlan, wife of the Supreme Court Justice, once told Reston that her husband never voted in elections because he felt it would be a conflict of interest, Reston replied, "That's odd. All of us at the New York Times vote," Ben Bagdikian, former senior editor of the Washington Post, says of Reston, "He sees the press more as a natural ally of the government than as a neutral observer. He's essentially a presenter of established policy."

Reston's identification with the powerful manifests itself in several ways. Frequently Reston will write a column consisting almost entirely of quotations and paraphrases from someone important. In recent months he has written such columns about (or rather with) Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany, Prime Minister Joe Clark of Canada, Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira of Japan, Senator Edward Kennedy, George Kennan, and his favorite, Henry Kissinger, Nicholas von Hoffman says these people talk to Reston because "he's a bulletin board. He's less likely to change your copy than anyone else," That certainly seems to be true, Reston rarely even interjects an opinion about what his subject has said, except to offer some mild praise for "raising important questions," or some such nonsense. Usually these interviews merely let the subject pontificate about whatever pleases him.

Sometimes Reston doesn't even need an interview to get enough quotations to fill up a column; a speech will do, as when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher spoke last December in New York, or when Cyrus Vance spoke in Chicago last May, In these cases Reston often will justify the repetition of a public speech by using it as the occasion for fulsome praise, as he did with Vance: "For almost a generation in Washington louder and more dramatic voices have overwhelmed Cyrus Vance's muted common sense, but he endures, . . . Vance commands the confidence not only of the president but of the leaders of the Congress and the people he has to face in negotiations with other nations," In Thatcher he found a proponent of his own favorite theme: "She reminded us that it is possible to face the perplexities of the 1970s and that she called 'the dangerous decade of the '80s' with serenity and even with hope."

Kissinger is Reston's most frequent guest columnist. Most recently the former secretary of state used Reston to communicate his belief that "there is now such a crisis of confidence abroad in the conduct of US economic and overseas policy that it would be difficult for Mr. Carter to establish an effective working relationship in Europe, the Middle East or with the Soviet Union were he to be re-elected," Reston relies heavily on Kissinger as both source and subject; once he even headlined a column "By Henry Kissinger, with James Reston," Even some of Reston's most devoted admirers concede that his apparent closeness to Kissinger is embarrassing. But Reston scoffs at the notion that he is too cozy with Kissinger, "It's an entirely professional relationship," he says. "He's been in my house since 1969 only two times; I've never been in his, I've never been too close to him. If you think so, ask him about my reports on the Christmas bombing or the Paris talks,"

Kissinger did indeed question the accuracy of Reston's report on the Paris peace talks in 1972, which said the US was prepared to sign an agreement alone if the South Vietnamese refused to sign. But if that report caused Kissinger any irritation, Reston has more than made up for it since by offering him frequent opportunities to keep his name and opinions in the limelight. As for the 1972 Christmas bombing column, Kissinger had nothing to be angry about, Reston did criticize the bombing as "war by tantrum"—a pretty mild phrase, considering the circumstances—but he was referring to Nixon, not his foreign policy adviser. In fact, only a few days later Reston went out of his way to absolve Kissinger of any blame, "It may be, and probably is, true that Mr. Kissinger as well as Secretary of State Rogers and most of the senior officers in the State Department are opposed to the President's bombing offensive in North Vietnam. . . . [Kissinger] has said nothing in public about the bombing in North Vietnam, which he undoubtedly opposes," Reston even suggested that Nixon would have to stop the bombing to prevent Kissinger from resigning. For an official whose reputation depended largely on his cultivation of liberal columnists and reporters, it was very useful to be portrayed as the dove in the Nixon administration. It hardly strains credibility to suspect that Reston was shrewdly used in this instance, or in another, later one. In January 1976, Reston wrote of UN ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Mr. Kissinger agrees with Moynihan's defense of American interests, but not with his style, his provocative rhetoric, his rambling off-the-cuff debating tactics, his self-concerning appeals to the rest of the US Foreign Service, or his vicious attacks on the State Department bureaucracy," Moynihan later wrote that when Reston's column appeared, Theodore White called to tell him he had no choice but to resign, since Kissinger obviously was using Reston to undermine him, (Moynihan soon did resign. He, like everyone else, recognized that James Reston was the official voice of the semi-authorities.) Here again some skepticism would have served Reston well. It isn't likely that Kissinger had changed his mind about Moynihan, whose opinions and style were no secret to his former Harvard colleague. What had changed was Kissinger's view of Moynihan's usefulness to the administration. But it would have been politically risky to fire Moynihan outright, since he had gained a wide following. The Reston column was a much neater solution.

Other officials less artful than Kissinger have been able to fool Reston. On August 10, 1973, Reston gushed about a press conference held by Vice President Spiro Agnew, in which Agnew passionately denied charges of peddling influence and accepting bribes. As usual, Reston attributed the expressed views to the air, rather than to himself: “. . . even without knowing the facts in Agnew's case, the feeling after his press conference was very much in his favor—in fact, that finally in this town somebody in power had talked up with candor and passion, and taken the risk of telling the truth," As we now know, this last risk was one Agnew did not take that day. Only two months later he pleaded nolo contendere to bribery charges, and resigned his office.

It appears that Reston has fallen into that oldest of journalistic traps—refraining from criticizing those in positions of power or influence in order to preserve his access. All journalists have to decide whether it's more important to get exclusives from those in a position to give them, or to maintain the freedom to say anything they believe. Columnists face the dilemma more keenly than other journalists, since they are freer to criticize, and yet more likely to be courted by the great, A muckraker like I. F. Stone, for example, lacks the high-level sources because he so lustily castigates those in power. But a bulletin board like Reston has access to those in power in "Washington," in part because he can be trusted not to make them look bad. Certainly Reston would have no trouble getting his phone calls returned even if he made a habit of flogging top officials, since no one in Washington would dare to ignore the New York Times. But he might not get the juicy tidbits, the behind-the-scenes peeks, or the exclusive interviews,

Reston himself practically concedes as much, though not in quite the same terms, "If you spend your life as a hatchet man—and there's something to be said for that—then eventually you find that everybody's out to lunch when you call," he says, "You're left with only your own opinion, I wouldn't like that, because my own opinions aren't that good."

The problem isn't just that Reston is too cautious about preserving his good relations with top sources, ("I've never held something out of the column in order to keep from losing a source," he says,) He's too much a gentleman to even wish to criticize the sort of people he relies on for information. It's hard to imagine Reston consciously refraining from severe criticism in order to avoid alienating someone important, because it's hard to imagine Reston ever feeling strongly enough to want to criticize severely. It's not in the nature of the beast, Reston never thinks things are really all that bad.

Reston is no critic of the powers that be precisely because he thinks we're all on the same side, with the same fundamental interests. That's why Reston didn't inform his readers that the US was flying U-2 reconnaissance planes over the Soviet Union until one was shot down in 1960, even though he had known about it for more than a year. That's why Reston so often writes columns like the one that appeared on April 2, when he wrote of President Carter: "He has made many mistakes along the way in this Iranian crisis, but at this particular moment, he is being very cautious, under extreme international and political pressure, and the feeling in this corner is that he deserves more support than he's getting," And that's why Reston worries so that the press "is determined, for good reasons, to expose the weakness and corruption of government at all levels, but in the process tends to dramatize the worst in everything and everybody." Reston, by contrast, likes to stress the best traits in everyone, even if it means obscuring their very real—and more pressing—flaws and mistakes.

But the softness of Reston's columns, especially in recent years, goes beyond mere excess of optimism and amiability. It's no longer clear that he even pays much attention to the words he writes. In November 1975 he complained that Ronald Reagan's presidential candidacy "is taken so seriously . . . by the President," Then a month later, he revealed that President Ford "is said to be worried now [about Reagan] for the first time," Often Reston simply fills space with meaningless jabber. Take for example his latest Kissinger column, quoted above. Having noted Kissinger's disparaging assessment of Carter's diplomatic record, Reston went on to say: "This is the most serious indictment heard from Kissinger about any Administration in recent years," Now a columnist who had troubled to think about what he was writing would have realized that Kissinger would not be likely to criticize the foreign policy of the two administrations that preceded Carter's, since he created it. (And of course before 1969, Professor Kissinger did not have Reston's ear,) A couple of weeks ago, Reston praised President Sadat of Egypt for having "the honor of the mind," Honor of the mind? What can this be? How is it different from honor of the soul, honor of the body? It's a nice, portentous phrase, but when examined it yields no meaning: it is pure nonsense, in the strictest sense of the word.

Or take a recent column based on a conversation with Edward Kennedy, in which Reston coaxed out of Kennedy remarks like this: "'This country is a restless giant,' he says, 'but I believe it is eager to listen to the different views of the candidates and will respond,'" And this: "My central impression of the last few weeks of campaigning is that the people really want to be part of resolving the issues that divide them. They're deeply concerned and looking for leadership," Reston quotes lines like these without ever pausing to examine them, Kennedy of course was saying nothing newsworthy, nothing in fact even meaningful. So what purpose is served by his private interview with the nation's most distinguished journalist? If Reston knows when a politician is telling him something important and when his subject is merely making amiable noise, he gives no sign of it. In his audience with Reston, Helmut Schmidt was no less bold than Kennedy: "there was a need, he conceded, for closer consultation on East-West problems and for a new effort to develop a longer-range strategy and philosophy among the Western allies," What did Reston expect Schmidt to say (or "concede")? That there was a need for less consultation on East-West problems, or for no effort to develop a longer- range strategy? As a matter of fact, that would be a real scoop.

One of Reston's favorite crutches is the call for a National Debate on Important Issues, In January he wrote that "what we need now is an honest accounting of the state of the Union, followed by a serious debate in the Congress about where the nation stands at the beginning of the 1980s." Only a few days before he had asked, “Who is responsible for our present predicament—the president, the Congress or both?" And he noted with approval, "Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York has suggested that these questions be debated at length in the coming session of Congress," The previous week Reston had praised Kissinger for saying "It is time for a carefully considered nonpartisan effort to reach a consensus on how to contain Soviet power in the Near and Middle East," Once in a while he will combine this with another favorite theme, as when he wrote that his airy voices "believe the 'present danger' lies more in the threat of inflation and the erosion of confidence in the American dollar and the control of the American economy [than in the Soviet threat[. This is worthy of a 'great debate' in Congress." This fondness of Reston's is not new, apparently. Once it annoyed even Arthur Krock. After one 1958 Reston column praised Adlai Stevenson for calling for a committee of experts to make plans for the recovery of the Western economies, Krock complained, "The files already are bulging with a dozen such formulations by 'committees of experts.'"

What is the point of suggestions like these? Does Reston really think a national debate on any of these matters will contribute much to anything? It's doubtful. More likely he simply doesn't have an opinion but feels obliged to take note that issues like these are being discussed. Or perhaps he does have an opinion but doesn't want to express it forthrightly. In any case, proposing national debates and discussions is hardly a function worthy of the most influential job in print journalism.

Close and regular reading of his columns leads to the conclusion that James Reston simply has nothing to say. He has no ideas, and only the vaguest opinions, which means he has no way of separating the wheat from the chaff. "I'm an economic and financial idiot," he cheerfully admits, "but I can go and see the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Secretary, Henry Reuss, Ed Muskie, and what I do is report." But since he knows very little about the subject, Reston cannot distinguish between what is sound and what is just noise. Consequently he ends up quoting a lot of nonsense from important people, either because he doesn't realize it's nonsense or because he thinks it doesn't matter. And since people like that can get away with spouting nonsense, so can Reston, If he tosses off some phrase like "honor of the mind" or calls for a national debate on some issue, people assume that he's actually said something, when in fact he's only obscured his dearth of ideas. That dearth of ideas is precisely what keeps him in business, because if he had any ideas he wouldn't be nearly so valuable to people in power, or to newspaper editors who like their columnists thoughtful but not controversial, or to readers who like to be carried along on meaningless profundities and soothing reassurances. And if it weren't for people like that, James Reston wouldn't be the premier journalist of the age.