AN INFLUENTIAL POLITICAL COMMENTATOR TALKS ABOUT WATERGATE, THE PRESIDENCY AND HIS HOBBY — RUNNING A SMALL LOCAL NEWSPAPER.
Byline: Madeline Blais, August 1974
It was quite possibly the loveliest day of the summer on this island community [Martha’s Vineyard] on Cape Cod, but like a lot of other Americans, James (Scotty) Reston sat in a darkened room and watched television.
Reston, vice president of the New York Times and the most influential of its Washington columnists, had returned here from a European vacation, spent a morning playing tennis with Walter Cronkite, and now, with his wife, Sally, sat glued to the tube as John Ehrlichman auditioned for history.
Scotty Reston views Watergate “as a kind of national education course on democracy.”
“The questions that have been raised are more important than who goes to jail,” he said. “It’s not merely a matter of a good show; the net effect should be a body of legislation which will tidy up this mess, make it impossible for it to happen again. In the end, there will be guidelines on who among the White House staff should be confirmed by the Senate, on who should have access to TV.”
For Reston, Watergate is both “hopeful and heartening.” Some days later, he would apply the same adjectives to Spiro Agnew’s Aug. 8 press conference, when the Vice President denounced as “damned lies” reports that he took kickbacks from government contractors in Maryland.
“My main feeling about the Agnew development is that the Vice President conducted the most honest press conference in Washington in years,” Reston would say. “He didn’t duck the charges that he was being investigated as a crook. Instead, he faced the music and in the end made a cogent comparison between the way he deals with such controversy and the way Nixon does.
“Agnew has always maintained that no matter what he says about the press, newsmen are always welcome to drop into his office for a good argument. I’ve always been able to. These days, it’s almost thrilling to find a public official who can be congratulated for his accessibility….”
It is rare for Reston to sound off so, because he is a man who would rather listen quietly and ask questions than casually squander his own observations. He habitually downplays his role as one of the foremost political commentators of our time.
“I am just,” he says, “a puzzled man making notes, drawing sketches in the sand which the sea will wash away.” He cheerfully credits Walter Lippman with the line.
Scotty and Sally Reston maintain a summer home here, and for five years they have been to the Vineyard even in the off months to lend a supervisory hand to their pet project — the Vineyard Gazette newspaper. “Sally and I knew we wanted to take an increasing amount of time off from the Washington whirl, to stop throwing presidents and continents around and do something simple, together.”
Like the Times, it is, according to Reston, “a newspaper of record, sometimes devoting thousands of words to a single town meeting.” It never endorses political candidates.
“The biggest difference is that inaccuracy is a personalized problem and you’re liable to get a punch in the nose if you misquote someone,” he says.