James Reston Jr., author of “A Nixon Apology,” has died at 82

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James Reston Jr., author of “A Nixon Apology,” has died at 82

James Reston Jr., an eclectic historian and novelist who helped British TV host David Frost push former President Richard M. Nixon to admit his complicity in the Watergate scandal and apologize in a painful interview, died Wednesday at his home in Chevy Chase. Md. He was 82.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Denise Leary.

Mr. Reston, whose father was a prominent figure at The New York Times as a columnist, Washington bureau chief and executive editor, has largely sidestepped daily journalism to focus on contemporary and historical nonfiction and novels and adapted four from his books into plays.

Among the first of his more than 18 books is Perfectly Clear: Nixon From Whittier to Watergate. Published as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1973, it called for the president’s impeachment after the break-in at Democratic headquarters in Washington and the subsequent White House cover-up.

As a result, Mr. Reston was primed when Mr. Frost bought exclusive rights to interview Nixon after the president resigned in 1974 and hired Mr. Reston as a researcher.

”I looked at the scandal as the greatest political drama of our time,” Mr. Reston told Smithsonian magazine in 2009. ”My passion was my opposition to the Vietnam War, which I felt Nixon had unnecessarily extended six bloody years; in my sympathy for the Vietnam War resisters who were cornered by the Nixonians; and to my dismay at Watergate itself. But I was also driven by my desire for commitment and, I like to think, a novelist’s sense of the dramatic.’

He added: “For many months I have been combing through the archives and came across new evidence of Nixon’s collusion with his aide Charles Colson in the cover-up – evidence that I was sure would surprise Nixon and perhaps shake him out of his studied defend .”

Mr. Reston drew up a 96-page summary — an “interrogation strategy memo,” as he called it — to prepare Mr. Frost for almost 29 hours of interviews, which will be condensed into four 90-minute television programs.

“The resulting Frost-Nixon interviews — one in particular — really turned out to be historic,” Mr. Reston wrote. “On May 4, 1977, 45 million Americans watched as Frost wrested a sad admission from Nixon about his role in the scandal: ‘I have let the American people down and I must carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.’

”On the show,” Mr. Reston continued, ”the interviewer’s victory seemed quick and Nixon’s confession seemed effortless. In fact, it was painfully extracted by a slow grinding process over two days.

Mr. Reston’s book The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews (2007), was developed into a play “Frost/Nixon” by Peter Morgan, which in turn was developed into a film of the same title in 2008. Sam Rockwell played Mr. Reston in the film.

Mr Reston once described his work as “a series of obsessions” – on subjects ranging from the antiquarian conflict between Christianity and Islam to two agonizingly personal experiences.

In Fragile Innocence: A Father’s Memoir of His Daughter’s Courageous Journey” (2006), he wrote about his 18-month-old daughter’s experience with a viral brain infection that caused seizures and destroyed her language skills. She was treated with drugs that caused kidney failure and necessitated a life-saving transplant for which she waited eight years.

In A Rupture in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Struggle for a Vietnam War Memorial (2017), Mr. Reston relates his experience as an Army intelligence officer to the fierce debate over how best to memorialize what he describes as “the first lost war in American history.”

In ”The Innocence of Joan Little” (1977), Mr. Reston wrote about a North Carolina inmate who was accused of killing her jailer, who she said had tried to rape her.

If his other books were less personal, they were no less passionate.

These include Joan Little’s Innocence: A Southern Mystery (1977), about a North Carolina prison inmate who is charged with murder in the stabbing death of her jailer, who she said tried to rape her; Our Father Who Art in Hell: The Life and Death of Jim Jones (1981), about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana; and “Collision at Home Plate: The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti” (1991), about the baseball star and the baseball commissioner who banned Rose from the game because of accusations that he had bet on games.

In “The Lone Star” (1989), a biography of Texas Gov. John B. Connolly Jr., Mr. Reston described the newly elected Mr. Connolly in 1963 as follows:

“He stood in his elegant boots with the rich above the poor, the businessmen above the working, the white above the black, and the Hispanic, the glamorous above the ordinary.” In short, it symbolizes Texas royalty over Texas peasants. He was a mocking, polarizing figure, engendering feelings of intense loyalty and utter contempt, even hatred.

In another book, The Accidental Victim: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Real Target in Dallas (2013), he wrote that Mr. Connolly, who was riding in the car with President John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963 was Oswald’s intended target. Oswald, he wrote, may have blamed Mr. Connolly for failing, as Navy secretary, to review his dishonorable discharge from the Marine Corps.

”He symbolized Texas royalty over the Texas peasantry,” Mr. Reston wrote of Texas Gov. John B. Connally Jr. in this 1989 biography.

James Barrett Reston Jr. was born on March 8, 1941, in Manhattan, where his father was reassigned from The Times’ London and Washington bureaus. The family moved to Washington when James Jr. was 2 years old.

His mother, Sarah Jane (Fulton) Reston, known as Sally, was a journalist, photographer and, later with her husband, publisher of The Vineyard Gazette in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. James Jr. was a part owner of the paper until the family sold it in 2010.

After attending the St. Albans in Washington, Mr. Reston attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Morehead scholarship and received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy there in 1963.

As a student, he was active in the movement to desegregate public spaces in Chapel Hill. He also set the varsity soccer single-game record of five goals.

But like many children of famous parents, he took from college a particular burden, for what he considered to be a professional life.

“It was hard for him to get out of that huge Scotty shadow,” his wife said, referring to his father by his nickname. “Everyone expects you to be just the right father. He was dealing with the expectation that he would write about politics, write columns.

She added: “It was very important for him to develop his own reputation and get out of Washington.”

Mr. Reston was briefly a reporter for The Chicago Daily News from 1964-65 and served in the Army from 1965-68. He was a lecturer in creative writing at North Carolina, his alma mater, from 1971 to 1981 Mr.

In 1983, he was nominated by Newsweek, PBS and the BBC as the first writer to join a NASA space shuttle crew. (Space exploration was another of his admitted “obsessions.”) He didn’t make the final cut, and the project was ultimately scrapped.

He married Denise Brander Leary, whom he met while working at an anti-poverty program in New York. Besides her, he is survived by their daughters, Maeve and Hilary Reston; their son, Devin; two brothers, Tom and Richard; and two grandchildren.

At his death, Mr. Reston was working on two books to be published posthumously. One is about an Episcopal clergyman accused of heresy. The other is a biography of Frederick II, 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor.

Asked by The Georgia Review in 2018 to describe his greatest professional achievement, Mr. Reston replied: “The overall job, in my opinion. I wanted to live the literary life, and it was a tough road, but I persevered, and I have a job that I’m proud of – I’m proud of its scope and that I’ve been involved in a lot of important, still – important issues over the last 40 years.

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