James Reston Jr., nonfiction writer with a novelist’s eye, dies at 82


James Reston Jr., who brought a novelist’s sensibility to prodigiously researched and well-received books that covered a vast range of current events and history — the Vietnam War, Martin Luther, Richard M. Nixon, Galileo, Jim Jones — died July 19 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 82.

His daughter, Maeve Reston, a Washington Post political reporter, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

The son of James B. “Scotty” Reston, a New York Times columnist considered one of the most influential journalists of his generation, Mr. Reston chose a path through life that eschewed his father’s elite circles. He attended a state school over an Ivy, taught creative writing rather than prowl the halls of Congress, and largely avoided daily journalism to pursue literary works, including novels and plays.

“People, when you have a reasonably well-known father, tend to view you as a clone and that is a real mistake on their part because it is very rarely that sons are clones of their father,” Mr. Reston said in a 1989 C-SPAN interview. “They assume that I know everything about politics, when, in fact, affairs of the heart have been much more of interest to me throughout my whole career.”

Mr. Reston referred to his subjects as obsessions and, at their root, were titanic conflicts between people, ideas and ideals.

In “Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536” (2009), he wrote about the historical struggle between Islam and Christendom. His 1994 biography of Galileo centers on the astronomer’s collision with the Roman Catholic Church. “A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial” (2017) chronicles the epic struggle over the design of one of Washington’s most famous memorials.

“Reston retells the story dramatically,” Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott said in his review of the war memorial book, “dredging up material that many of the players in this drama might wish to remain forgotten.”

One of his obsessions was more personal. In “Fragile Innocence” (2006), Mr. Reston details his daughter Hillary’s profound struggle with a mysterious neurological disorder.

“It tells of her battle to live and our family’s struggle to help her survive as best we could,” Mr. Reston wrote in the preface, “after an evil and still unidentified force robbed her of her language at age two, hurtled her into a seemingly endless cycle of brain storms, destroyed her kidneys, and took her to the very brink of death.”

That was only half the story.

“The second half is different,” Mr. Reston wrote. “While the threats to her life never completely vanished, the latter half is about the process of coming to grips with the damage that had been wreaked and the quest to solve the mystery of what had happened. And it is about the heroic efforts of many people, professionals and friends and a few strangers, to help her reach her potential. Ultimately, it is the story of her deliverance and redemption.”

Mr. Reston’s best-remembered work is the one that led to him being played on-screen by Sam Rockwell.

In 1976, British TV newsman David Frost approached Mr. Reston about serving as a researcher to prepare him for a series of interviews with disgraced ex-president Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Reston had written a book about Watergate.

They met at Frost’s office at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

“I had to wait for a time to see him,” Mr. Reston later wrote in his book about the experience. “When I was ushered in, Frost apologized profusely for the delay; he had finally gotten through to the South of France after trying for four hours. I nodded as if I understood his frustration.”

They drank warm champagne. Frost offered him a cigar.

“Playing to my novelist’s sensibility,” Mr. Reston wrote, “he said he had never written a novel, but he was interested in what made Richard Nixon tick. Nixon was the most interesting man in the world to interview. And Frost did indeed share my sense of historical responsibility: to be the only man who would ever question Nixon at length about his Watergate involvement was a daunting challenge.”

Mr. Reston spent months reading transcripts from proceedings into the Watergate break-in and coverup. He turned up new evidence, including that Nixon was part of the conspiracy earlier than previously known. Mr. Reston wrote what he called an “interrogation strategy memo” to help Frost paint Nixon into a corner.

The result was riveting television.

“I let down my friends,” Nixon said. “I let down the country, I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now think it too corrupt. … I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me the rest of my life.”

The interviews — and the drama around them — were transformed into a play, “Frost/Nixon,” written by Peter Morgan, and later a movie of the same name, in which Rockwell plays Mr. Reston.

“‘Frost/Nixon’ — both the play and the movie — transcends history,” Mr. Frost wrote in Smithsonian magazine. “In the end it is not about Nixon or Watergate at all. It’s about human behavior, and it rises upon such tran­scendent themes as guilt and innocence, resistance and enlightenment, confession and redemption.”

James Barrett Reston Jr. was born in Manhattan on March 8, 1941, and grew up in Washington. His mother was a writer and photographer. He attended the private St. Albans School.

He was acutely aware of his place in the world.

“I was the child of privilege, growing up comfortably in Washington as the son of a prominent journalist,” he once wrote. “But there must have been something deep within me that led me to reject the easy path that was laid out before me.”

Instead of Yale or Harvard, which had courted him, he chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in philosophy and graduating in 1963. His time there coincided with desegregation in the town. “I became deeply involved in that struggle,” he wrote. “It was my first, and perhaps most important experience of engagement.”

After graduation, Mr. Reston worked as a speechwriter for Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and briefly as a reporter at the Chicago Daily News. During the Vietnam War, he served in an Army intelligence unit. He was stationed in Hawaii and on weekends flew to outer islands, hunkering down in hotel rooms working on a novel.

“That’s how I got into the writing business,” he later said.

He taught creative writing at his college alma mater for a decade. Mr. Reston also wrote for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times Magazine, Esquire and Rolling Stone.

In addition to his daughter Maeve, of Los Angeles, survivors include his wife of 52 years, Denise Leary; two other children, Devin Reston of Park City, Utah, and Hillary Reston of Chevy Chase, Md.; two brothers; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Reston was once asked, given the eclectic nature of his work, whether he considered himself a journalist or a historian.

“Neither, in a way,” he told the Georgia Review. “That may speak to a mind that is pretty scattered, because as you say there is a broad range of subject matter there. But I think this is the life of a writer — to go to those subjects that really fascinate you and do the best that you can with them.”


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