James Reston; Giant of Journalism

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

James Reston of the New York Times, one of the giants of American journalism in the 20th century and twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, died Wednesday at the age of 86.

Thomas Reston said his father died at home in Washington of cancer after a long illness.

Reston spent 50 years at the New York newspaper as a columnist and Washington bureau chief, covering national and international affairs.

R.W. Apple, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, said Reston was known for bringing along many talented journalists who shaped the news in the past and will continue to shape it in the future.

"He was the greatest journalist of his generation," Apple said. "And he recruited and trained two more generations of journalists at the Times and elsewhere."

Reston was a brilliant reporter and graceful writer whose access to the top politicians of his time was second to none.

Among Reston's many accomplishments was helping to create the nation's first op-ed page in 1970, reserving the page across from newspaper editorials as a stage for columnists' opinion pieces.

He was chief of the Times' Washington bureau from 1953 to 1964. He devoted his time to writing columns after a brief stint as the newspaper's executive editor in New York. He wrote his last column for the Times in 1987 and retired in 1989.

Reston won his first Pulitzer Prize after he obtained the Allies' secret proposals at the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks conference on planning the United Nations. He won his second Pulitzer for coverage of the 1956 presidential campaign.

Born in Clydebank, Scotland, James Barrett Reston came to the United States with his parents when he was 11.

He began his career as a reporter on the Springfield (Ohio) Daily News in 1932 and was a sports writer for Associated Press in New York and London.

The New York Times hired him in 1938 just as England went to war against Germany. Reston transferred to Washington in 1941.

He succeeded Arthur Krock as Washington bureau chief, and the people Reston hired included some of the most prominent names in American journalism--Tom Wicker, Anthony Lewis, Allen Drury and Russell Baker.

Reston had countless journalistic coups during his storied career. President John F. Kennedy confided to Reston that he had been threatened by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over Berlin. And Sen. Arthur Vandenberg showed Reston a draft of a speech on American foreign policy in 1945. The senator then incorporated into the speech Reston's suggestion of proposing a post-World War II alliance of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union to oppose German aggression.

Reston's "Washington" column, which ran in the New York Times for 35 years, was a must-read for for politicians and fellow journalists.

"James Reston was a beacon as a columnist," said Shelby Coffey III, editor and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Times. "He had a sharp instinct for getting to the core of issues. He had a graceful style, and he was unafraid of dealing sharp blows to stuffed shirts and inflated reputations in the public life he understood extraordinarily well. He viewed the odd cavalcade of world events with the cool compassion of a great ethicist."

Although Reston made his reputation as a columnist, he never forgot his roots as a reporter, where he wrote vividly of great events.

In his first story for the New York Times, this was Reston's description of the London blackout on the first night of World War II: "The world's largest city folded up tonight just like London, Ohio."

And of the assassination of Kennedy, he wrote: "America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young president, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best."

Reston loved the job of reporter. He explained in his memoirs how he cinched his first Pulitzer Prize: An ex-Times news aide from the Nationalist Chinese delegation slipped him the Dumbarton Oaks proposals.

And he recalled how he persuaded State Department officials to hand over to the Times copies of the secret Yalta agreements on postwar peacekeeping arrangements. Reston argued successfully to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and spokesman Carl McCardle that it would be better to have the full 300,000-word text printed in the Times than to have various senators and congressmen leak selected excerpts for political purposes.

As a witness to periodic Washington scandals, Reston was appalled at some of the abuses of government.

He had this to say about Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra affair:

"Power corrupts, and what this fellow has proved is that popularity corrupts," Reston wrote in 1987. "He thought he was so popular that he could just do anything he wanted."

And he wrote this about Richard Nixon's role in Watergate:

"There is scarcely a noble principle in the Constitution that he hasn't defended in theory or defied in practice."

But Reston remained an optimist about America.

"In the 50 years that I've been working here," he told an interviewer in 1991, "there is no country in the history of the world that has done so much for the human family as this country has."

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