A journalist of a different day James Reston: Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, the New York Times' James Reston wrote from a perspective foreign to today's Op-Ed pages, inside his era's philosophical Establishment.


JAMES RESTON would probably appreciate the fact that this is being drafted, slowly and painfully, on a portable manual typewriter.

He was a good newspaper man to the last; when he died Wednesday night, he did it in time to make the home-delivery edition.

When your job consists of grinding out a certain number of opinions every week over more than 30 years, it's difficult to see what, if anything, of your work will last longer than the issues that provoked it.

As Joseph Epstein, the essayist and critic, wrote of Mr. Reston's older counterpart, Walter Lippmann, "Twenty years from now, if he is remembered at all, he will be remembered as a small part of the history of American journalism, another pundit, wrong much of the time, part of the contemporary noise of his day. Whether he knew it or not, Lippmann had made a bargain: he achieved great fame in his lifetime in exchange for the near certainty of obscurity in death."

If Lippman, a highbrow who made a brilliant reputation early in life, felt disappointed over his fate, it's not clear that Mr. Reston ever did.

He started out as a sports writer, and he liked to vary his Olympian touches with an occasional return to the playing field.

(He once ended a column by having H. L. Mencken, who despised all sports when he was alive, confess a posthumous passion for the Baltimore Orioles).

If Mr. Reston's career points toward any larger truths, they probably have to do with the American Establishment in which he was a bit player, and the proper relationship between the Establishment and the Fourth Estate.

Mr. Reston never seemed to depart too much from the "progressive" end of the Establishment spectrum; the cure for the ills of reform, to one increasingly doubtful reader, always seemed to be more reform.

But that was part and parcel of the world in which Mr. Reston came to prominence, a world that had not yet undermined the Establishment's confidence in itself.

In that world, it was perfectly natural that eminent journalists should help statesmen exchange confidences, send messages or float trial balloons.

The first generation of columnists at Mr. Reston's New York Times -- Arthur Krock, C. L. Sulzberger and Mr. Reston himself -- wrote like men who were used to thinking of themselves as, if not part of the permanent government, permanent advisers to it.

That's the biggest difference between The Times of Mr. Reston's day and of ours.

As the politicians' self-confidence ebbed, the tone of the Times' new voices -- Anthony Lewis, Frank Rich, Bob Herbert, Maureen Dowd, the recently departed Anna Quindlen -- seemed more and more to express hostility to power in general.

Most journalists would consider that a healthy evolution, but it has a down side that George Orwell described in his great essay on Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling, Orwell wrote in 1942, "identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality.

"The ruling power is always faced with the question, 'In such and such circumstances, what would you do?', whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of the thought deteriorates accordingly ."

The Times opinion pages are more inclusive now than they were when Mr. Reston started the Op-Ed page there a generation ago, and far better written; like the caste Hindus in V. S. Naipaul's novel "A House for Mr. Biswas," who believed appetizing food was bad for the soul, John B. Oakes, the Times' editorial page editor for many years, seemed to think there was something fundamentally illiberal about lively prose.

But the opinion pages have that air of permanent and pensioned opposition about them -- Jonathan Yardley wrote recently that today's Times "hatches out Sixties recidivists the way Jemima Puddle-Duck hatched out ducklings" -- and against that background, Mr. Reston looms like a relic of the age of heroes.

Jeffrey M. Landaw is a makeup editor for The Sun.

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