James Reston Jr., an eclectic historian and novelist who helped British television host David Frost goad former President Richard M. Nixon into admitting complicity in the Watergate scandal and apologizing in a harrowing television interview, died Wednesday at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He was 82 years old.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Denise Leary.
Mr. Reston, whose father was a well-known figure at The New York Times as a columnist, Washington bureau chief and executive editor, largely bypassed daily journalism to focus on nonfiction and historical and current novels and adapting four of 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 was unfolding in 1973, it called for the removal of the president after the break-in at the Democratic headquarters in Washington and the subsequent White House cover-up.
As a result, Reston was prepared when Frost bought the exclusive rights to interview Nixon after the president resigned in 1974 and recruited Reston as a researcher.
“I considered the scandal the greatest political drama of our time,” Reston said. smithsonian magazine in 2009. “My passion lay in my opposition to the Vietnam War, which I felt Nixon had needlessly prolonged through six bloody years; in my sympathy for the Vietnam War resisters, who had been ridiculed by the Nixonians; and in my horror at Watergate itself. But I was also driven by my desire for commitment and, I like to think, a novelist’s sense of drama.”
He added: “Over many months I went through the files and found 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 draw him out of his studied defenses.”
Mr. Reston drafted a 96-page brief, an “interrogation strategy memo,” he called it, to prepare Mr. Frost for nearly 29 hours of interviews that would be condensed into four 90-minute television shows.
“The resulting Frost-Nixon interviews, one in particular, were historic,” Reston wrote. “On May 4, 1977, 45 million Americans watched Frost get a painful admission from Nixon about his part in the scandal: ‘I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.’”
“On the broadcast,” Mr. Reston continued, “the interviewer’s victory seemed quick, and Nixon’s admission seemed to come without a hitch. In reality, he was painfully extracted from a slow grinding process for two days.
Mr. Reston’s book, “The Condemnation of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews” (2007), was made into a play, “Frost/Nixon,” by Peter Morgan, which itself was made into a film with the same title in 2008. Sam Rockwell played Mr. Reston in the film.
Mr. Reston once described his body of work as a “series of obsessions” —on topics ranging from the antiquarian conflict between Christianity and Islam to two harrowingly personal experiences.
In “Fragile Innocence: A Father’s Memoirs on His Daughter’s Brave 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 she needed a life-saving transplant, for which she waited eight years.
In “A Crack in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial” (2017), Mr. Reston linked his experience as an Army intelligence officer to the painful debate over how to most appropriately commemorate what he described as “the first lost war in American history.”
If his other books were less personal, they were no less passionate.
Among them were “The Innocence of Joan Little: A Southern Mystery” (1977), about a North Carolina inmate who was charged with murder in the stabbing death of her jailer, who she said had attempted to rape her; “Our Father Who Art in Hell: The Life and Death of Jim Jones” (1981), about the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978; and “Collision at Home Plate: The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti” (1991), about the baseball star and baseball commissioner who banned Rose from playing in the game due to allegations that he had gambled on the games.
In “The Lone Star” (1989), a biography of Texas Governor John B. Connally Jr., Mr. Reston described the newly elected Mr. Connally in 1963 this way:
“He stood on his fancy boots with the rich over the poor, the business executive over the blue-collar, the white over the black and the Hispanic, the glamorous over the commonplace. In short, he symbolized Texas royalty over the Texas peasantry. He was a mocking and polarizing figure, engendering feelings of intense loyalty and outright contempt, even hatred.”
In another book, “The Accidental Casualty: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Real Target in Dallas” (2013), he wrote that Mr. Connally, who was riding in the car with President John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, had been Oswald’s intended target. Oswald, he wrote, could have blamed Mr. Connally for not reconsidering, as Secretary of the Navy, his dishonorable discharge from the Marine Corps.
James Barrett Reston Jr. was born on March 8, 1941, in Manhattan, where his father had been reassigned from the London and Washington offices of The Times. 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, editor of The Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. James Jr. co-owned the newspaper until the family sold it in 2010.
After attending St. Albans School in Washington, Mr. Reston attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Morehead Scholarship, earning a BA in philosophy there in 1963.
As a student, she was active in the movement to desegregate public accommodations in Chapel Hill. He also set the college football single game scoring record of five goals.
But like many children of prominent parents, he carried a particular burden from college as he considered a professional life.
“It was hard for him to get out of that huge Scotty shadow,” his wife said, referring to their father by his nickname. “Everyone expects you to be exactly your father. He was dealing with the expectation that he would write about politics, he would write columns.”
He added: “It was very important for him to develop his own reputation and get out of Washington.”
Mr. Reston was a brief reporter for The Chicago Daily News, from 1964 to 1965, and served in the Army from 1965 to 1968. He taught creative writing at his alma mater, North Carolina, from 1971 to 1981.
In 1983, Newsweek, PBS, and the BBC nominated him to be the first writer to join the NASA space shuttle crew. (Space exploration was another of his recognized “obsessions”). He did not make the final cut and the project was ultimately scrapped.
He married Denise Brender Leary, whom he met while working at an anti-poverty program in New York City. In addition to herself, she is survived by her daughters, Maeve and Hillary Reston; his 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 Episcopalian clergyman accused of heresy. The other is a biography of Frederick II, the 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor.
asked by The Georgian Review in 2018 to describe his greatest professional achievement, Mr. Reston responded: “I think the job in general. I wanted to live the literary life and it has been a difficult road, but I have persisted and have a body of work that I am proud of, proud of its variety, and with which I have been involved in many important and still relevant issues in the last 40 years.