It’s been more than a year that we’ve been slogging around the swamp of presidential scandal, witnessing the media exploitation of the boggy details of the Monica thing. No wonder that some of us feel the tug of nostalgia for what seem like sunnier times, when the great old barons of journalism like Scotty Reston protected us from the seamier details of our leaders’ lives.
Here’s how it worked in the old days: After Jack Kennedy became president, there was a persistent rumor that our first Catholic president had been married before he married Jackie, and to a twice-divorced woman. At The New York Times Washington bureau Wallace Carroll, Reston’s right-hand man, assigned one of his best diggers to the story, joining the snoopers from other bureaus around the capital. But when Reston found out that his boys were chasing after this piece of presidential dirt, he became quite angry. “I won’t have The New York Times muckraking the President of the United States,” Reston declaimed. The Times’s investigation ended, but others pursued the story, finding only dead ends while right wing hate sheets kept reprinting the rumors.
Or it worked this way: After Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy and the civil rights movement was gathering momentum, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent his men around the Washington news bureaus peddling transcripts of tapes showing that Dr. Martin Luther King was sexually active outside his marriage. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel point out in their Century Fund study of the press’s behavior during the Monica storm, See review of “Warp Speed” » no one would print the story. Frustrated, Hoover called in some reporters to FBI headquarters to hear with their own ears his evidence of King’s misbehavior. Still there were no takers.
It’s almost beyond imagining what would have become of the nation had such a smear by the FBI about King’s personal life ruined him as a pivotal figure of enormous public significance. And Kennedy had enough troubles in his brief presidency managing Khrushchev, Castro and the CIA and the Viet Cong without fending off endless stories about his marital history, which Seymour Hersh, in his book “The Dark Side of Camelot,” now insists was as the rumors had it. Had the old rules been in place, had there not been a Matt Drudge and the dueling shouters expostulating on 24-hour cable networks, would Reston and the arbiters of news that once ruled Washington have saved us—and Bill Clinton—from the national embarrassment of Monica?
David Halberstam, who worked in Reston’s bureau, says flatly that the story would never have escaped the beltway. “It would never have gotten any traction.” Not that the information would not have had an impact on how Scotty Reston, who had a strict Scots-Presbyterian sense of right and wrong, especially on the question of marital fidelity, would have viewed this president. “He would have regarded him with a cold contempt that would have affected his treatment on other questions,” contends Halberstam.
Conventional historical memory posits that the press perfectly well knew of Kennedy’s gross impropriety in the White House and beyond and simply covered it up in return for access to the president and the leaders of the New Frontier. Tom Wicker, who was Reston’s man in the White House at the time, disputes that, as do others, even those who covered JFK adoringly, like TIME magazine’s Hugh Sidey. Wicker argued in “On Press,” his superb 1975 look at the Washington press corps, that the press was even then far too diverse in political point of view to conspire to suppress provable facts about Kennedy’s indiscretions. Had the facts been obtainable and verifiable, someone would have been printed them, argues Wicker. If the dam had broken, even Scotty Reston would have been unable to ignore that story.
It is certainly true that there was a much greater sense of restraint in the Reston era when it came to printing stories about the personal lives of public figures. Reston himself was quite close to Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and was frequently accused (falsely, my research indicates) of having actually written Vandenberg’s landmark 1945 speech in which the isolationist senator embraced a new kind of Republican internationalism. However, in 1948, Reston got a tip from a highly respectable academic source that Vandenberg was under suspicion by “security sources” because his mistress was believed to be a “British agent.” Reston later said the tip “didn’t make any sense to him then and doesn’t now,” and it was never followed up. It was not the sort of thing gentlemen looked into.
Reston and most reporters in the Washington journalistic establishment of his time tended to give political leaders what we would regard today as an expansive benefit of the doubt on personal matters. In fact, the press in Reston’s era was only just emerging from a period of almost stenographic fealty to the utterances of public officials. It took an unconscionably long time before the press began to call the loathsome red-baiter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, on his falsehoods.
That reluctance to write critically in the news columns about political leaders persisted for years, although it was occasionally shaken by such extravagant lies as Dwight Eisenhower’s assertion that Francis Gary Power’s downed U-2 spy plane was simply an off-course weather spotter. But it was not until the corrosive lying that attended the conduct of the Vietnam War that the press, in general, hardened in its view that the government, given a choice between the truth and a self-serving piece of prevarication, might often chose the latter. But even then, the Reston sense of restraint persisted at The New York Times into the Nixon years when Reston acolyte Max Frankel was bureau chief, causing the paper to get beaten and beaten badly as the dirty details of Watergate got dredged up by The Washington Post.
Scotty Reston loved a good exclusive. He won his first Pulitzer Prize for printing details of the big powers’ various positions on the creation of the United Nations, even as those plans were being secretly debated at Dumbarton Oaks. He always described himself as a “scoop artist” rather than as an opinion leader. He hounded his bureau into getting ahead of the official flow of news, even if the scooplet was a routine ambassadorial nomination that would be known to the world in a day or so. He believed that by breaking even small stories, he was creating the impression that The Times was hot-wired into the private workings of the government, thus improving the chances of even bigger scoops.
But the story of the President of the United States having sex—or whatever he would call it—in the Oval Office? With a woman only slightly older than his daughter? Would Scotty Reston have sat on that story if someone had come to him with the tapes? Would he have softened The Times’s treatment of it as he did, at Kennedy’s request, the paper’s scoop on the impending Bay of Pigs invasion? Or would he have held off printing the story, again at Kennedy’s request, as he did when The Times learned that the United States was about to impose a naval blockade around Cuba during the missile crisis? He would certainly have wanted to ignore it. He would have wanted to have the story be false and he would not have led the charge to expose Bill Clinton’s narcissistic stupidity.
But in the end, not even Scotty Reston could have stood down on pursuit of the Monica story. In some ways, the course of the Clinton sex scandal story was like that of Watergate. There were rumors. There were small leaks. But it was not until the legal process got underway that the news floodgates opened. Once Ken Starr got himself authorized to investigate, there is no news organization at any time that could have ignored the story. Would the story have seeped past the beltway, even if Reston’s sensibilities were guiding the profession today? No question. Would Reston’s generation have kept their coverage more restrained? Certainly. And, in the end, had restraint been in evidence, those in the profession and their audience might not have felt like they were witnessing not only the diminishment of the presidency but also the dismantling of public trust in a responsible press.
John F. Stacks was TIME’s Executive Editor and Chief of Correspondents. He is writing a biography of Reston to be published by Little, Brown.