The American journalist James Barrett Scotty Reston (1909-1995) was one of the most important political commentators in the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s. His column in the New York Times was widely read by leading politicians and diplomats.
Born November 3, 1909, in Clydebank, Scotland, James Barrett ("Scotty") Reston was the second child of James and Johanna Reston. His family emigrated to the United States in 1920 and settled in Dayton, Ohio. Raised in a strict Presbyterian home, Reston thought seriously of becoming a preacher. He also considered a career as a professional golfer but ultimately went into journalism and became recognized as one of the nation's foremost political writers.
After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1932, Reston took a job as a sportswriter for the Springfield (Ohio) Daily News. He then worked for the Ohio State University sports publicity office and as a press secretary for the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. In 1934 he accepted a position with Associated Press in New York writing sports features and a column, "A New Yorker at Large." He was sent to London in 1937 to cover international sporting events and the British foreign office.
In 1939 Scotty Reston was hired by the New York Times to work in its London bureau. In 1941 he was covering the State Department in Washington, D.C. After publishing the book Prelude to Victory (1942), in which he stressed that the war effort must be a national crusade, he went to London to help organize the U.S. Office of War Information.
He returned to Washington, D.C., as the Times' diplomatic correspondent in 1944. While covering the Dumbarton Oaks conference which organized the United Nations, he obtained a full set of top-secret Allied position papers from an unhappy Chinese delegation. This major scoop earned him the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
A successful and valued reporter, Reston was named Washington bureau chief in 1953. He recruited a team of interns and young writers who formed an enterprising and powerful staff and developed into leading national journalists. While supervising the office he still managed to write about 5,000 words a week. In 1957 he received a second Pulitzer Prize for a series on America's lack of national purpose. Featured in a Time magazine cover story in early 1960, he was called "a crack reporter, a good writer, a thoughtful columnist and an able administrator of the biggest bureau in Washington."
In March 1960 Reston began the thrice-weekly political column which solidified his stature as one of Washington's most influential journalists. In the introduction to a collection of his essays, Sketches in the Sand (1967), he observed that columns are motivated by a wide range of objectives, from ideological interpretation to investigation. He saw his own purpose as if he were writing an informative letter to a thoughtful friend. Life magazine described it as "a highly intelligent summary of what policy makers are thinking and worrying about; Reston does not so much argue for or against their policies as clarify them with a readable prose style and stamp them with his own healthy point of view."
Distinguishing his style from another pre-eminent columnist, Walter Lippmann, who was known as a systematic thinker, Reston acknowledged that he did not profess a particular philosophy. "I'm a reporter of other men's ideas," he said. Critics and admirers both agree that Reston had the ability to cultivate powerful political figures such as Henry Kissinger.
Coming from a poor immigrant background, Reston saw America as a land of opportunity. Expecting its leaders to act in an exemplary manner, he was deeply disappointed after the bombings of Cambodia and the Watergate affair. Yet, a conservative man with traditional values, he was optimistic about the country's future.
Based on a moral outlook reflecting his Calvinist roots, Reston's message of hope appealed to the Sulzberger family which owned the Times. There was always mutual affection between the Times and Reston. According to one journalist, Reston "is not so much a man of the left or right as he is a man of the Times."
In 1960 Reston cautioned the Times not to print advance information it held about the imminent Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1965 Reston toured South Vietnam to take a personal look at the war. In 1967 he delivered a series of lectures which were published as The Artillery of the Press: Its Influence on American Foreign Policy in which he advocated a more skeptical and less nationalistic role for the press. In 1971 he recommended that the Times publish the secret study of the Vietnam War, The Pentagon Papers. Later that year, at the height of his influence, he visited the People's Republic of China and conducted the first indepth interview of Premier Chou En-lai.
In 1964 Reston gave up his position as Washington bureau chief in order to become associate editor and devote more time to his column. In 1968 he served briefly as executive editor in New York before returning to Washington as vice president in charge of news production. After 1974 Reston was a director of the New York Times Company while continuing to write his column. In 1987 he gave up his regular column and retired except for writing a piece only now and then. In 1991, he wrote Deadline, a memoir of his life.
He was a stocky man with a square, reddish face. He married Sarah Jane Fulton in 1935 and they had three sons. They lived in Washington, D.C., but spent time in Fiery Run, Virginia, and in Martha's Vineyard, where Reston bought the weekly paper in 1968.
In addition to his Pulitzer Prizes Reston received many journalism awards and honorary degrees, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Roosevelt Four Freedom medal, and the Commander, Order of the British Empire. James Reston died on December 8, 1995.
Further Reading on James Barrett Reston
For Reston's own writings, see his collection of essays Sketches in the Sand (1967) and The Artillery of the Press (1967). He is frequently cited in two books about The New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese (1966) and Without Fear or Favor by Harrison E. Salisbury (1980). He wrote his memoirs in a book titled Deadline (1991).