James Reston Jr., an eclectic historian and novelist who helped the British television host David Frost prod former President Richard M. Nixon into admitting his complicity in the Watergate scandal and apologizing in a wrenching broadcast interview, died on 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 renowned figure at The New York Times as a columnist, Washington bureau chief and executive editor, largely bypassed daily journalism to focus on timely and historical nonfiction and novels and adapting four of his books into plays.
Among the first of his more than 18 books was “Perfectly Clear: Nixon From Whittier to Watergate.” Published as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1973, it urged the president’s impeachment after the break-in at the 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 recruited Mr. Reston as a researcher.
“I regarded the scandal as the greatest political drama of our time,” Mr. Reston told Smithsonian magazine in 2009. “My passion lay in my opposition to the Vietnam War, which I felt Nixon had needlessly prolonged for six bloody years; in my sympathy for Vietnam War resisters, who had been pilloried by the Nixonians; and in my horror over Watergate itself. But I was also driven by my desire for engagement and, I like to think, a novelist’s sense of the dramatic.”
He added, “Over many months I combed through the archives, and I came across new evidence of Nixon’s collusion with his aide Charles Colson in the cover-up — evidence that I was certain would surprise Nixon and perhaps jar him out of his studied defenses.”
Mr. Reston drafted a 96-page brief — an “interrogation strategy memo,” he called it — to gird Mr. Frost for nearly 29 hours of interviews that would be condensed into four 90-minute television programs.
“The resulting Frost-Nixon interviews — one in particular — indeed proved historic,” Mr. Reston wrote. “On May 4, 1977, 45 million Americans watched Frost elicit a sorrowful admission from Nixon about his part in the scandal: ‘I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me the rest of my life.’”
“In the broadcast,” Mr. Reston continued, “the interviewer’s victory seemed quick, and Nixon’s admission seemed to come seamlessly. In reality, it was painfully extracted from 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 by the same title in 2008. Sam Rockwell played Mr. Reston in the movie.
Mr. Reston once described his body of work as a “series of obsessions” — about 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 medication that caused kidney failure and necessitated a lifesaving transplant for which she waited eight years.
In “A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam War Memorial” (2017), Mr. Reston linked his experience as an Army intelligence officer with the bruising debate over how to memorialize most appropriately 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 accused of murder in the stabbing death of her jailer, whom she said had tried 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 the baseball commissioner who banned Rose from the game over allegations that he had bet on games.
In “The Lone Star” (1989), a biography of the Texas governor John B. Connally Jr., Mr. Reston described a newly elected Mr. Connally in 1963 this way:
“He stood in his elegant boots with the wealthy over the poor, the business executive over the working man, white over black and Hispanic, the glamorous over the commonplace. In short, he symbolized Texas royalty over Texas peasantry. He was a taunting, polarizing figure, engendering feelings of intense loyalty and utter contempt, even hate.”
In another book, “The Accidental Victim: 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, may have blamed Mr. Connally for failing, as Navy secretary, to reconsider his dishonorable discharge from the Marines.
James Barrett Reston Jr. was born on March 8, 1941, in Manhattan, where his father had been reassigned from the London and Washington bureaus of The Times. The family moved to Washington when James Jr. was 2.
His mother, Sarah Jane (Fulton) Reston, who was known as Sally, was a journalist, photographer and, later with her husband, publisher of The Vineyard Gazette in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. James Jr. was a part owner of the newspaper until the family sold it in 2010.
After attending the St. Albans School in Washington, Mr. Reston attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Morehead scholarship and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy there in 1963.
As a student he was active in the movement to desegregate public accommodations in Chapel Hill. He also set the university’s single-game soccer scoring record of five goals.
But like many children of prominent parents, he carried from college a particular burden as he considered a professional life.
“It was difficult for him to break out from that enormous shadow of Scotty,” his wife said, referring to his father by his nickname. “Everyone expects you to be exactly your 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.
In 1983, he was nominated by Newsweek, PBS and the BBC to be the first writer to join a NASA space shuttle crew. (Space exploration was another of his acknowledged “obsessions.”) He did not make the final cut, and the project was ultimately scrapped.
He married Denise Brender Leary, whom he met while working in an antipoverty program in New York City. In addition to her, he is survived by their daughters, Maeve and Hillary Reston; their son, Devin; two brothers, Tom and Richard; and two grandchildren.
At his death, Mr. Reston was working on two books, which are to be published posthumously. One is on an Episcopal cleric accused of heresy. The other is a biography of Frederick II, the 13th-century Holy Roman emperor.
Asked by The Georgia Review in 2018 to describe his greatest professional accomplishment, Mr. Reston replied: “The overall work, I think. I wanted to live the literary life and it’s been a rocky road, but I have persisted, and I have a body of work that I am proud of — proud of its range, and that I have been engaged in a lot of important, still-relevant issues in the last 40 years.”