James Reston Jr. fills many roles: novelist and playwright, biographer and historian. But he is best known these days as a character in the 2008 hit movie Frost/Nixon, based on the 1977 televised confrontation between British talk show host David Frost and the only president ever to resign from office.

As Frost’s chief researcher, Reston uncovered taped conversations that revealed Richard Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate cover-up. When presented with this material on camera, Reston says, the former president realized “all his escape routes were blocked off and he had to do something.” The result: Nixon’s famous admission that he had “let down” the country.

That moment provided the dramatic fulcrum for a play written by Peter Morgan that opened in London in 2006. As Reston tells the story, American director Ron Howard decided to turn the play into a film after watching the London production: “It was really the Reston character within the piece that convinced him to do it.”

Reston the playwright describes Reston the character as “kind of boring” because he “doesn’t grow.” But he does become the “moral center” of the tale through his prickly and persistent determination to bring Nixon down. In fact, Reston was almost fired from the project because he “was coming on so strong,” and he still maintains rather, umm, frosty relations with some former colleagues.

We’re talking in the basement office of the wood frame house in Somerset that Reston and his wife, Denise Leary, a lawyer at NPR, have occupied for 22 years. It sounds strange to hear him refer to “the Reston character.” So I ask: Is that really you? Or someone else? And what’s it like to see yourself on the stage, and then in the movies?

“It was mind blowing. I was just gaga with all of it,” he replies. Flying to London, chatting up the cast, advising the playwright, attending the premiere, watching five or six different actors portray “the Reston character” in various productions. The movie later provided a new round of “gaga” moments. Sam Rockwell, who plays him on-screen, asked Reston to read his lines so the actor could capture the right inflections.


Reston, now 68, went to Hollywood when shooting started and even convinced Howard to give him a cameo (as an Australian TV producer). But today, more than a year after the movie’s premiere, “the party’s over.” The “gaga” wears off and “your critical faculties start to kick in a bit. Gradually you become disembodied from the thing,” he says, “and that’s why it’s easy for me to talk about ‘the Reston character’ as sort of an abstraction.”

If the party’s over, the post-mortems are not. When Reston puts on his historian’s hat, he sees glaring discrepancies between Frost/Nixon and actual events. For one thing, he hates the scene where “the Frost character” tells “the Reston character” to look up certain material that could undermine Nixon. The real Frost “was so out of it through the whole process” that he never did anything like that, Reston says, but the playwright wanted to turn Frost into “an action figure” to bolster his final showdown with Nixon.

More seriously, Reston the historian objects strongly to the scene—in both the play and the movie—where Nixon “is asked a couple of questions and falls flat on his face.” It didn’t happen that way. The tapings lasted 28 hours, and bringing Nixon to his knees “was a very slow, grinding-down process.” When Reston urged Morgan (who wrote both the stage and the screen versions) to stretch out the questioning of Nixon, he was rebuffed. In fact Morgan made his original script shorter not longer. He wanted to compress the action into a single act for an interesting reason: If there were an intermission, contemporary audiences would retreat to the lobby, talk on their cell phones and shatter the emotional mood.


Reston the historian might be aggrieved, but the playwright in him is not. In a revealing essay in Smithsonian magazine, he admits that Morgan’s creative work “transcends history” and concludes: “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.”

Jim Reston knows about redemption. His father, James “Scotty” Reston, a columnist for The New York Times, was perhaps the most influential journalist of his time. I worked as Scotty Reston’s research assistant in the mid-’60s, and revere him to this day as a model and mentor.

But Reston remembers his father as “pretty domineering,” astern figure who wanted all three of his sons to join the newspaper business. His middle child rebelled from an early age. He “hated Washington,” went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and, after a stint in U.S. Army intelligence, settled down on a farm near his old college and started writing books.


His productivity was high—novels, plays, biographies—but his sales were low. “It’s been a real struggle financially along the way,” Reston admits, with the family often depending on Denise’s salary to pull them through.

In the early ’80s he moved to New York, and even though he sold a lot of magazine pieces, he was still “going broke like crazy.” At that point he felt free to return to Washington because he had proved his point: “One of the best things that ever happened to me was breaking the mold and going to North Carolina and staying for 10 years during my formative years, rather than coming back here,” he says. He worked here during the Frost assignment, but kept his farm in North Carolina. “That was critically important to my career. This shadow thing is a serious problem. I really don’t think people perceived me as being an author in my own right until my father died [in 1995]. I was always the junior.”

In 1994, Reston published Galileo: A Life, a biography that established his credentials as a historian. His next book, The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D., led him to contemplate the clash between Christianity and Islam. And in May of 2001 he released Warriors of Gods: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. Four months later, terrorists toppled the Twin Towers, and suddenly religious warfare was a hot topic. Warriors “absolutely went through the roof,” he says, selling 200,000 copies in a dozen languages. “I am a great beneficiary of 9/11,” he concedes.


Two more books of history followed. So did a little volume in 2006 called Fragile Innocence: A Father’s Memoir of His Daughter’s Courageous Journey. The Restons’ daughter Hillary (the youngest of their three children) had contracted a virus at 18 months that severely damaged her brain; she could not form words or control seizures. Medication treating the seizures damaged her kidneys and threatened her life. Reston originally saw the book project as a “great quest” to uncover the cause of his daughter’s condition; but he never found it and put the manuscript aside. Then Hillary received a new kidney and anew lease on life—and finally provided an ending for her father’s story. (Now 27, Hillary lives at home with her parents.)

There are 13 books in all now, with various editions filling an entire cabinet in Reston’s study. To some he will always be “the Reston character” in Frost/Nixon. To others he will always be “the junior” to a famous father. To himself he is a third figure, apart from the other two. “I setout in 1969 to be an author, and that’s what I’ve done,” he says. “I just wanted to practice the craft.” And so he has.

Steve Roberts’ new book, From Every End of This Earth, was published last fall.