Scooped, Again

Two masters: James Reston, standing, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn, circa 1960. George Tames/New York Times

The great James Reston.

By Max Frankel

Here’s how James Reston could exploit a young reporter’s dream of becoming James Reston. I rushed into his Washington bureau one night with a scoop that Bobby Kennedy was flying to Indonesia. “Hmm, Let’s think about that,” Scotty said – always said. “Why would the President waste his brother’s time on a tinhorn like Sukarno while he’s toe to toe with Khrushchev in Berlin?” “Yeah,” I finally allowed. “Indonesia could be a feint to cover a secret stopover in Moscow.” Scotty picked up the phone, and to my amazement, the Attorney General took the call. “Can’t give him time to deny it,” Scotty whispered. “Good evening, General. What on earth do you think you can accomplish in Moscow?” Kennedy’s shocked silence confirmed our guess; we now knew his mission no matter what else was said. My back-page paragraph was suddenly front-page news – which caused the Moscow side trip to be canceled.

Fast on foot and always thinking, Scotty Reston was the best reporter of his time because he knew what he didn’t know and he knew how to make smart people tell him. What’s more, he fortified their best ideas with crisp and witty prose. He forced the editors of The Times to value his facts, even if he failed to name his sources, and to welcome his prose, even if it broke every rule in the stylebook.

Scotty was convinced that great men – but not yet women – made history. When he spotted one. he picked his brain relentlessly. And when he ran out of great men. he persuaded merely large men that they faced momentous challenges and could best secure their place in history by first talking with him.

When the men around Harry Truman decided that only huge sums of American money could rebuild Western Europe and rescue it from Communism, it was to Scotty that they confided their $18 billion plan, hoping to drum up public interest and Congressional support. The news appeared in The Times on a Sunday morning, and by 10 o’clock Senator Vandenberg of Michigan, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called Reston at home and said: “You must be out of your senses. No Administration would dare to come to the Senate with a proposal like that.”

Of course it was Truman’s sanity that Vandenberg was questioning. But it was through Reston – and his influential readers – that Presidents and Senators often negotiated in those days. Indeed, Vandenberg, a windbag of modest intellect, had attained the great influence with which he ultimately secured passage of the Marshall Plan through a prior Reston encounter.

One day soon after the end of World War II, the Senator proudly let a few reporters review a speech proposing to denounce Stalin for shackling the nations of Eastern Europe. Scotty said it was a fine speech as far as it went but showed no understanding of Soviet fears of invasion. Wouldn’t it be better to offer Stalin an alliance against any future German threat” The speech, given with the Reston ploy added, evoked a sensational response and overnight established an ever grateful Vandenberg as the leading internationalist in a still-isolationist Republican party. Thus did Scotty Reston harvest his scoops, stalking the disaffected to slip him political secrets, like the Yalta papers and American plans for the United Nations. The scoops made him, and The Times, compulsory reading by all the best people in all the best places.

But the biggest story of all. Reston always insisted, was change itself. He kept reminding readers of America’s emergence as a superpower, the collapse of empires, the wild growth of populations and the revolutions in weaponry, transportation, communication and journalism. First in his own columns, but also in the work of the hundreds of colleagues he inspired, Scotty championed the reporting of ideas and the thoughtful explanation of the news.

“We are no longer in the transmitting business,” he would say, “but in the education business…. Things don’t have to ‘happen’ to be news. They can just be going on quietly, like the unemployment in Pittsburgh or the boom in Houston.”

As one of Scotty’s privileged acolytes, I tried as editor of The Times to press on in the same enlightened direction, insisting that the “hard” news of crimes and plane crashes was rarely more important than the “soft” news of what’s been happening in families, between the sexes, among the races and nations. Not till the day Scotty died, when I reread his columns and his memoir, “Deadline,” did I discover the source of all my best slogans and ideas. Scooped again, by the master.

Silurian News, March 1996

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