Highlights of a Life
“He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears but by diligent hard work, he overcame them.”
—James (Scotty) Reston
“He [Reston] would go and see the President or the leader of the Soviet Union… and not only did he see them, but he talked to them almost as an equal, as a man who understood their problems.”
—R. W. Apple, Jr., Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times
James (Scotty) Reston was perhaps the most influential journalist of his time. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting, Reston flourished at a time when there was consensus among Americans about policy – when the most important goal was to avoid defeat by the Soviet Union. Instrumental in the creation of the first op-ed page in U.S. newspapers in 1970, he wrote extensively about forefront events and issues of his time, including World War II, the Bay of Pigs invasion, Vietnam and Watergate.
Truly a paradigm of the poor immigrant who makes good in America, Reston was born in Clydebank, Scotland in 1909. When he was 11, his family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Dayton, Ohio. More enthusiastic about sports than school, Reston became an excellent golfer; his father had hopes he would turn pro. Reston was even named Ohio High School Golf Champion in 1927. Though he never made it to the PGA, an incident on the golf course at the Dayton Country Club swung his career into motion. As a teenager, Reston carried golf clubs for Ohio Governor James Cox, who was also publisher of the Dayton Daily News.
After finishing college in 1932, Reston was hired by the Cox-owned newspaper in Springfield, Ohio. Paid 10 dollars a week to cover sports, the ambitious Reston stayed with the Springfield Daily News for one year.
His only departure from journalism took place early in his career, when Reston resigned at the Springfield Daily News to try his hand in public relations. Reston took a job with the Ohio State University as a sports publicist. A year later, he moved to Cincinnati to fill the post of press agent for the Reds.
In 1935 Reston married his college sweetheart, Sarah Jane Fulton, the daughter of an Illinois judge. Together they had three sons: Richard Fulton, James Barrett, Jr., and Thomas Busey.
Using the connections of an old friend from high school, Reston made the leap to New York City, landing a job with the Associated Press. From 1937 to 1939, Reston reported for AP in London, covering the famous London Blitz.
The New York Times took notice of the promising young Reston and hired him to staff the Times’ London Bureau. He quickly proved himself and was transferred to the paper’s Washington, DC bureau, where he covered events during World War II and into the late 40s.
Famous for cultivating high-ranking sources, Reston was promoted to correspondent and given his own column, which he maintained for more than 40 years. Throughout his career, Reston interviewed eight presidents. Despite personal invitations by rival publisher Katherine Graham to join the Washington Post, Reston remained at the New York Times, ascending to the position of Washington bureau chief at age 43. He continued to advance at the Times, from bureau chief to vice president and finally, to director of the New York Times company.
In 1945, Reston received his first Pulitzer for an exclusive series of articles on the creation of the United Nations. He won his second Pulitzer in 1957 for a series on President Eisenhower’s illness and its impact on the functioning of government.
Reston believed journalists were obligated to inform and persuade. “To meet this responsibility,” said Reston “a man must be not only a reporter and editor, but an educator, historian and philosopher.
What’s more, Reston shared the sense of purpose felt by government and political leaders. In 1961, he was sharply criticized for his decision not to publish details of the planned Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, even though Reston knew about the impending attack. His devotion to America and its national security clouded his journalistic impulse to promptly report the facts. The 1961 invasion proved a disaster and Reston took heat from President Kennedy, among others, for withholding information that might have prevented the colossal mistake.
Nevertheless, high-ranking politicians trusted Reston with classified information that resulted in numerous scoops for the New York Times. World leaders sought him out as a means to reach the minds of opinion-makers, including the President. Reston was particularly close to Henry Kissinger, and became one of his best supporters in the news media, calling the advisor to President Nixon “one of the most intelligent, imaginative and effective public servants of his time.” Kissinger convinced Reston that he was opposed to 1972 bombing of North Vietnam when, in fact, the idea to bomb Hanoi was Kissinger’s. Reston persuaded Pentagon reporters to downplay allegations that Kissinger was behind the attack, a move that damaged Reston’s reputation.
Reston said that, as a decision-maker at the Times, he was most proud of transforming the newsroom from a pool of secretaries to a stable of promising young men. Known for his appalling insensitivity to female staff members, Reston came up with the idea while observing the function of Supreme Court clerks. The young Russell Baker, Iver Peterson, and Anthony Lewis were among those who endured clerical work in hopes of learning the business at the prestigious New York Times.
Scotty Reston retired from the Times in 1989. He died of bone cancer six years later at the age of 86.