JAMES RESTON A Reporter's Way of Thinking
James Reston entered journalism of a golf. This is interesting because he was a very good golfer, and, to start with, a mediocre journalist. He won the Ohio public links championship at the age of 15 and was fascinated by the men who came to cover his triumph. Soon he was running copy for reporters in his home town.
At the University of Ilinois he majored in journalism--getting mostly C's-and captained the varsity golf team. And after graduation he got his first job--as a reporter for the Springfield (Ohio) Daily News at $10 a week--from a man he had caddied for as a body.
Newsweek has given the world to understand that when Reston finished at Illinois he wanted to start a golf course; that he approached James Cox who hired him for the Daily News) seeking financial support; and that he only accepted the reporting job when Cox pointed out that 1932 was a bad year for business ventures. All this Reston denies.
Time magazine has quoted Reston's mother as saying he was only dissuaded from becoming a professional golfer immediately after high school, by "prayer and argument." Reston, on the other hand, says he was "never really interested" in anything but reporting.
Today, in any case, he's the most powerful reporter in Washington, and since he works 14 hours a day he has no time for golf.
Reston had a motley assortment of jobs in the early part of his career. In 1933 he left the Daily News to work for the sports publicity office of Ohio State University. The next year he became travelling press secretary for the Cincinnati Redlegs. In each town the team visited, Reston went to the local newspaper and asked for a job. After eight months he got one-through his high school friend Milton Caniff, later of Steve Canyon fame-with the Associated Press in New York. He wrote sports features, and for a time a chit-chat column about books and theatre called "A New Yorker at Large."
In 1937 the AP sent him to London--to write sports stories in the summer and cover the Foreign Office in the winter. That was his break. "I didn't even know what the map of Europe looked like," he says, "I had read, read, read." In 1939 he joined the New York Times bureau in London.
Reston was no prodigy. He had been turned down twice by the Times of New York when he was hired in London. But starting slowly may have been good fortune. Perhaps as a result Reston has never believed he had all the answers-or even, to listen to him, any of the answers. His first rule in gathering information is not to pretend to know a subject when he doesn't. "I do my homework on what the problems are," he says, "and then keep asking questions about the solutions".
There is a certain shrewdness in his attitude that "you can get anybody to tell you almost anything if you make him think he's smarter than you are." As someone who has worked closely with him put it, "a key thing about his personality is that he's always remained a Midwesterner with a Midwesterner's distrust of Easterners."
But his curiosity is genuine-one might even say profound. "This is a guy," says the same Times man "who thinks he can learn something from everybody. This is a personal as well as a professional trait. He wants to know what you're thinking. He especially wants to know what young people are thinking." One Harvard student who has known Reston for many years says he can remember being "grilled" by him when he was nine.
After he joined the Times Reston's curiosity began to pay off. In 1941 he moved to the Washington bureau. The following year he took three months off from the Times to organize the U.S. Office of War Information in London. In December of 1942 he returned to this country as assistant to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the Times. Nine months later he became acting head of he London bureau. In 1944 he went to Washington to stay.
An explanation of Reston's rise that crops up in magazine articles is that his sense of inferiority to his wife drove him to it. He married Sarah (Sally) Jane Fulton on Christmas Eve, 1935. Her father was a lawyer. His was an immigrant mechanic; the family had moved to Dayton from Clydebank, Scotland when Reston was ten. At Illinois she was Phi Beta Kappa. For Reston, according to a friend, college "didn't take." Reston says simply: "I married above me."
Perhaps there is truth in the theory-though if virtue needs explanation it is more likely that Reston's Scotch Presbyterian upbringing accounts for his extraordinary drive. In Cambridge some time ago, however, Reston described a contribution his wife has made to his career that casts the whole thing in a different light. He is regarded as an expert listener. How did he acquire that skill? "Well, first of all," he said with a smile "you marry the right girl. And she tells you: You're talking too much. You cut him off just when he was about to tell you something...."
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When Reston returned to Washington in 1944, bureau chief Arthur Krock assigned him to the diplomatic beat. He made his reputation almost immediately, and in spectacular fashion.
At half past ten on the morning of August 22, 1944, representatives of the American, British and Russian governments sat down together at Dumbarton Oaks to plan the United Nations.
The Chinese were also participating in the conference but were not present at the start. At the request of the Russians, who wished to avoid Chinese pressure to enter the war against Japan, they were to meet with the British and Americans separately, after the Russians had retired.
The Washington Conversations on International Organization - that was the official title - were then in their second day. But the opening had been devoted to speeches and photographs. It was at the first executive session that the talks really got under way.
And starting with the first executive session the talks were secret. Military guards surrounded the Georgetown mansion. Reporters were barred from the grounds. They were not even allowed to question the delegates. The conference, it was explained, was merely "preliminary and exploratory." The results would of course be made public. But meanwhile, officials said, the day-to-day debate in the Dumbarton Oaks music room was necessarily confidential.
The only news was to come in the form of short communiques, issued jointly by the three delegations. The one for August 22 said simply that Edward R. Stettinius Jr., Under-Secretary of State and head of the U.S. delegation, had been chosen as permanent chairman of the Conversations, and that the three governments had presented the plans for an international security organization which they had prepared in advance.
All this Reston duly reported the next day in the Times. He summarized the communique and even mentioned the guards outside the mansion. He waited until the fourth paragraph to drop his bomb:
"THE NEW YORK TIMES, however, has learned from an unimpechable source the following digest of the three plans which were drafted by the Governments recently and exchanged by the Governments concerned for study and comment."
For the next 50 inches he outlined the plans. He carefully pointed out where a provision of the American plan differed from "other versions... reported by this and other correspondents." (This was a key provision, since it stipulated that Congress need not specifically approve the security organization's use of force against an aggressor.) At the end of the story Reston highlighted his triumph by printing the text of the uninformative three-paragraph communique.
The State Department was predictably annoyed. They even set the FBI to work - unsuccessfully - trying to trace the leak. But Reston was not flustered. And his scoop was only beginning.
Following his rule that "you should always look around for the guys who are unhappy," he had persuaded the Chinese to give him the complete texts of the position papers prepared by the governments. As the Conversations progressed, Reston discussed the relevant sections.
"If you continue to print this series of documents," Stettinius told Sulzberger, "the Russians will accuse us of bad faith and the wartime coalition will be ended."
"If unity is so weak among the great powers as to be shaken by a few factual stories," Sulzberger replied, "then it won't stand up anyway."
The stories stretched into November, and won Reston his first Pulitzer Prize.
Reston was only 34 when he broke the Dumbarton Oaks story. He had been in Washington less than a year. He was, as he puts it, "in a hell of a hurry." But there was more to his energy that ambition. He had been in journalism a third of his life, and he had convictions about his calling.
The special duty of the press, he explained in a speech in the spring of 1945, is making sure the government tells the people what it is up to.
This was just what the government had tried to avoid doing at Dumbarton Oaks, he said. "They knew that years of work had gone into the draft plans that were submitted by the four great powers there. They boasted of the care with which they had worked on the plans which the public had never seen. They knew that as the conference progressed and weeks were spent cabling back and forth between Moscow and Washington on the diction and punctuation of the document, something was being formed that was much more definite and binding than the phrase 'preliminary and exploratory' indicated."
That, said Reston, was why he had gone after the position papers, and why the Times had published them. "Nothing is more effective in political life than a fait accompli," he said. "Nobody knows this better than the politician. It is therefore the duty of the reporter to get the facts as quickly as possible...."
Just after the war, Reston says, he realized the dimensions of this duty. For a diplomatic correspondent, at least, reporting policy while it was still being debated was becoming more important than reporting policy that had been announced. As he later explained it in a speech:
"The power of the executive to decide issues in the secret stage of negotiations with other nations is growing all the time, and this, I fear, is going to impose new obligations on reporters and probably bring them even more into conflict with officials than in the past....
"We no longer have a government of 'equal powers' in the field of foreign affairs, if we ever did have. The Congress retains all its power over the purse and it still has the right to review, but the President and the Secretary of State in the Executive Branch are now more than ever before in a position to call the turn. When the President announces to the world that he wants aid for Greece, the Congress does not really have complete freedom of action; it can go along with him or repudicate and humiliate him-and it will hesitate to do the latter....
"Thus, it seems to me, if public opinion is to retain anything but the power of protests, after the event, the reporter has to move into the action much earlier in the development of policy than formerly."
This insight gave Reston his angle; it has justified his curiosity and organized his thinking ever since. Even at the time, it must have made a great deal fall into place. He was able to define his job in a way that suited his temperament perfectly.
For Reston was, in the best sense, a scoop artist - a specialist at getting information other reporters hadn't. (For a time in the early '50s, he averaged two scoops a week.) And he was also an idealist - who in 1942 had written Prelude to Victory, which he called "not a book so much as an outburst of bad temper ... against anything and anybody who is concentrating but winning this war."
Yet unlike some crack newspapermen and dedicated pamphleteers he did not, and does not, hold a conspiracy theory of history. For him the function of a newspaper is not so much to expose evil as to educate, to reduce the sum total of confusion and ignorance in the world. So the prospect of continuous battle to prevent unnecessary secrecy and unintentional accumulation of power must have been rather pleasing.
Reston's realization that policy must be reported while it is still being debated gave him his modus operandi: "Read the newspapers and raise in your own mind the unanswered questions. You can anticipate what the government will do, and, on the basis of that, go after it." This "projective analysis" became Reston's specialty. A good example was his prediction, in 1947, that Secretary of State James F. Byrnes was about to retire.
It was generally known that Byrnes wished to step down. It was also known that whenever any opening appeared in the Administration, President Truman asked why General George Marshall wouldn't be a good man to fill it. So, when the AP ticker reported that Marshall had been called home from Nanking, Reston guessed that Brynes was quitting, and hinted as much in his stories. He also called Brynes and asked him. Byrnes hedged. Then Krock called. Byrnes wouldn't speak to him. Instead Brynes called the White House to say the Times was on to the story. Truman released it immediately, a few days ahead of schedule.
Reston is fully as ruthless as he is shrewd. Using a "periphery technique," he accumulates bits of information from various places, then confronts the primary source and tries to bluff the full story out of him. He is said to be the finest bluffer in Washington.
In general, Reston employs an easy-going, folksy approach. But he can also be abrupt; one of his favorite tricks is calling an official, asking a question, and then waiting, without saying anything else. One Times man says he will do "almost anything" to get information.
Reston himself is coyer about his methods. "I have often given the impression that I knew a little more than I did," he admits. But "obviously," he says, "if I go in to see George Ball and he's called out of the room, I don't get up and read the papers on his desk. It's just a question of common honesty."
On television last year Reston was asked how he decided whether to print something when the national interest was at stake. Although as an Associate Editor of the Times he rates mention on the mastheads, he replied that he is simply a reporter, and that his editor decides what to publish.
But Reston does think about these questions. At the very beginning of World War II he broke British censorship to report the sinking of a British cruiser by a German submarine in the Firth of Fourth. By 1945 he was describing the incident as an error in judgement. He still does.
And Arthur M. Schleinger Jr. describes in A Thousand Days Reston recommended that the Times not publish a story Tad Szule filed from Miami in 1961 reporting that a landing on Cuba seemed imminent. "Reston counselled against publication: either the story would alter Castro, in which case the Times would be responsible for casualties on the beach, or else the expidition would be cancelled in which case the Times would be responsible for grave interference with national policy."
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In 1953 Reston was offered the job of Editor of the Washington Post, which would have put him in charge of the Post's editorial page. He told Krock about the offer, and in order to keep Reston with the Times, Krock stepped down as bureau chief and gave Reston the job.
As the Times' "Washington Correspondent"-the bureau chief's official title-bureau got a Sunday column. Although he continued to report on a day-to-day basis, his focus shifted slightly. "I try to ask myself," he said in 1958, "what's not getting reported? What's not on the agenda? What's the big story we're all missing? That way I lean against the wind."
Reston began to step back just a little, to discuss process as well as product. Where his 1944 Pulitzer came for finding out what the government was working on, his second, in 1956, came for figuring out how the government was working. He won the prize for a series of articles on the functioning of the executive branch during President Eisenhower's illness.
This is not to say that Reston has ever really entered the realm of the abstract. His columns are almost always tied to current events. He will sometimes call a dozen people to produce a single sentence. And facing a 7 p.m. deadline, he often does not sit down at his typewriter until 4. Late one afternoon, when asked when he was going to start writing. Reston replied that he wasn't an intellectual and did not need to sit around thinking. He was waiting, he said, turning back to the ticker, to see what the news was.
To a large extent Reston works the way he does because he likes to. He writes best under pressure, and has a terrible time with magazine articles until just before the deadline. He gets very impatient with theories according to one Times man, and "really has a terror of being out of touch."
But staying close to the news is also a matter of conviction as well as temperament. Reston is practically obsessed with the importance of the newspaper's educational role. (In forty-minute interview recently, that was the only topic on which he volunteered a comment-and he spoke with fervor when he did.) And newspapers can best perform this role by showing the significance of current events.
"The 19th Century was the era of the novelist," he explained in 1958. "The 20th is the era of the journalist. A distracted people, busy with the