Word of James Reston's retirement from daily journalism reached me 2 1/2 weeks ago at a motel on Cape Cod. It came by way of a handsome tribute to Mr. Reston -- pardon the deviation from Washington Post style, but calling him "Reston" is inconceivable to me -- on ABC's evening news broadcast. It was, I assumed, the first shot in what would become a fusillade of celebration and praise, one that would render anything I might have to say upon my return from vacation belated, superfluous and redundant.
So much for my prognosticatory powers. What follows is certainly belated and possibly superfluous, but it is scarcely redundant. ABC's portrait of Mr. Reston was followed not by a chorus of salutation but by a silence so vast that it seemed to encompass the entire business of journalism. In only a handful of publications that I have seen this month has there been more than perfunctory mention of Mr. Reston's reduced responsibilities at The New York Times; to the embarrassment of all journalists, due tribute has not been paid.
It would be comforting and convenient to chalk this off to journalism's preoccupation with the Iran-contra hearings and other such amusements, but that would be an excuse rather than an explanation. The lamentable fact is that the business to which he brought so much honor and distinction had neglected Mr. Reston by the hour of his retirement; the telling irony is that Mr. Reston, for all his working life a believer in the lessons of history, is himself a victim of American journalism's indifference to history, its own included.
Thus it is that I find myself not in the awkward position of adding a footnote to what others have already said, but in the even more uncomfortable one of wanting to say all the things that have gone unsaid. This I cannot hope to do, for in a career of nearly half a century Mr. Reston did and wrote so much that no mere newspaper column can adequately summarize or assess it. Instead I should like to put a personal note on the public record, and to offer a comment or two about why Mr. Reston seems to me not merely the leading journalist of his generation, but an example to younger journalists that we ignore at our own peril.
I first met Mr. Reston in the late winter of 1961; I was a senior at the University of North Carolina, where he had come to deliver a speech and meet with students. A series of wholly improbable events ensued, the final result of which was that two weeks after graduation I reported for work at the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Mr. Reston, who was then chief of that bureau as well as a thrice-weekly columnist, had been persuaded by his friend Felix Frankfurter that a prominent journalist, like a Supreme Court justice, should have a clerk; thanks to extraordinary good luck, the position was mine.
To say that I was overwhelmed by my good fortune scarcely hints at the truth. Not merely was Mr. Reston then the most celebrated and respected journalist in the country, but he presided over a bureau that overflowed with talent. Arthur Krock was a looming, intimidating presence -- his role as waterboy to Joe Kennedy as yet unrevealed -- and so too were the older journalists whom he had hired during his own tenure as chief of The Times' Washington satrapy. But to me the most impressive reporters were those whom Mr. Reston had brought on: Tom Wicker, Anthony Lewis, Marjorie Hunter, Max Frankel, David Halberstam, Richard Mooney, Russell Baker -- the leaders-to-be of journalism's next generation.
The collective presence of these people in one rather small office in Washington was tribute not merely to their own abilities but even more to Mr. Reston's sympathy for younger journalists and his determination to bring the best of them into his bureau. To his 21-year-old clerk they seemed stars from another planet; over a quarter century I have never quite lost the awe I felt at being permitted to spend a year in such company, nor have I satisfactorily repaid the great debt I owe to Mr. Reston for letting me begin my career in such auspicious circumstances.
I gained many things from that year with Mr. Reston, but nothing more than the conviction that journalism should be a serious business for serious people. That conviction is terribly difficult to sustain in this new age of celebrity journalists and "personal" journalism, but it is a belief worth fighting to hold on to. Both as bureau chief and as columnist, Mr. Reston knew that the story was more important than the storyteller, and that the sensation of the scoop was trivial by comparison with the dogged pursuit of the truth. Not always successfully, I have tried to conduct my own career on the assumption that he was right.
Mr. Reston was and remains an old-fashioned man, a believer in institutions -- marriage and The New York Times, to name two he especially reveres -- and in the principles on which they are founded. The not surprising result is that when journalism started to get trendy, around the late 1960s, it became fashionable in certain circles to mock him as a defender of the establishment, as a sentimental apologist for a corrupt political system -- as, in his own words, a "stick-in-the-mud optimist." Among many of his fellow journalists, if not among his millions of devoted readers, he fell out of favor.
This was not entirely without reason. Over the last decade Mr. Reston's columns became more oracular than reportorial, which is to say that a strength was replaced by a shortcoming. Mr. Reston never became, as many admirers had thought he would, "the next Lippmann," because he had neither the training nor the true inclination for philosophical reflection. He was, instead, a reporter and an analyst, and no one in his time was better than he at either. Which is to say that he was the first and only Reston, and that is quite enough distinction for anyone to claim.
So before his fellow journalists rush to inter him with yesterday's news, they'd do well to reflect upon the professional standards to which he adhered: the intense, self-effacing loyalty to the institution for which he worked; the belief that obligations to one's country and one's moral convictions take precedence over journalistic ambitions; the ability to see the human side of public events, and to keep always in mind that the people with whom he worked were private individuals whose lives involved more than the workplace and the competition for success.
In any assessment of James Reston, this last quality may well be the one his colleagues and competitors most cherish. He was a tough, resourceful reporter, and under the pressure of a deadline or a big story he occasionally seemed distant and preoccupied, but somehow he managed to remember that he was dealing with people and to treat them accordingly; he knew how to be kind, and he did not hesitate to use that knowledge. He offered his friendship openly and maintained it steadfastly; the knowledge that he is there should I need his help or counsel has been a gift beyond measure, more to be treasured even than the incomparable professional example he set.