President Nixon: Alone in the White House

New books dissected over email.
Oct. 15 2001 2:09 PM

President Nixon: Alone in the White House

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Dear Ted,

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Richard Reeves is a great archival historian, a judicious sorter of paper--which is something Richard Nixon generated by the ton. Reeves uses not just government documents and Nixon's own scribblings on yellow legal pads. There's also H.R. Haldeman's diaries and the jottings of those White House "anecdotalists" (including William Safire and Pat Buchanan), whom Nixon insisted on having at Cabinet meetings when he realized "that other note-takers were not getting across his warmth and wit."

Those who've read Reeves' President Kennedy: Profile of Power will recognize the method. Reeves uses 39 dates as windows onto Nixon's obsessions and deeds. These tend to be important ones: July 20, 1969 (the moon landing, Chappaquiddick); May 4, 1970 (Kent State); June 23, 1972 (Watergate arrests). Reeves ends the book 14 months before Nixon's resignation, on April 30, 1973, when Nixon, after demanding the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, realizes Watergate has finished his presidency. Is this justifiable? I don't think so, but I can save these thoughts for our discussion of Watergate.

Reeves doesn't show us any new facets of Nixon, but, boy, do we get new depth on what we already knew. His intelligence, for instance. In one footnote, Alan Greenspan describes Nixon as having had the highest IQ of any president since Woodrow Wilson. I'd guess that's true, and since you've worked for one of the two presidents with the best claim to the No. 2 spot (the other being Hoover), I'd love to know your thoughts on Nixon's intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Because of his flaws, Nixon shows how much a politician can accomplish on intellect alone. In a sense, intellect was all Nixon had. As such, I'm reluctant to compare him to a politician with as varied an arsenal of gifts as Bill Clinton, but there are some striking commonalities. One is the trained-president tricks: For instance, Nixon's reluctance to hold press conferences, we find out from Reeves, was due to the strain of memorizing long, complicated, and sometimes verbatim answers to the toughest anticipated questions on all subjects--as many as 178 of them.

What's most Nixonian about Nixon is that he was so brilliantly, inventively vengeful, so dogged in his husbandry of resentments. "I believe that no DOD funds for research should be provided to any university unless the faculty by a majority vote approves receipt and use of the funds for those purposes," he writes in one memo. "Put the faculties, not the university presidents, on the spot." And when Walter Hickel, the interior secretary, publishes a critical "open letter" in the Washington Star, Nixon orders the White House tennis court broken up, just because Hickel uses it once in a while.

But the subtlest thing Reeves catches is Nixon's imprisonment in his own daydreams. Only anecdotes can convey what I mean, but essentially Nixon seems less like a president than like someone fantasizing about being president. So often, when Nixon talks to others, you sense that he's really talking to himself, in the voice of a 13-year-old boy dreaming of fame. For instance, when two senators come to tell him his Supreme Court nominee Clement Haynsworth is doomed, he replies, "The captain will still be on the bridge. I will not retreat."

Immature or delusional? The most arresting pages in the book are those where, in the aftermath of the Cambodia invasion and his post-Kent State press conference, Nixon stays up all night using the phone--making 47 phone calls in four hours--as thousands of Army troops move into D.C. buildings to guard against mammoth protests expected the next day. He can't sleep, so at 5 a.m. he takes his valet, Manolo Sanchez, to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They meet protesters, whom Nixon engages in repartee about ... surfing. (Nixon's "I'm no square" spiel--which takes many forms, all of them beyond parody--is another rich seam.) Then he brings Sanchez to the Capitol. He sits in his old seat from his congressional days and tells Sanchez to go up to the speaker's podium and make a speech. Sanchez says only that he's proud to be an American. Now listen to this, which is like something out of an opera:

As Nixon and Sanchez left the chamber, three cleaning women came up to the president. One, Carrie Moore, asked him to sign her Bible. "Most of us don't read it enough these days," he said as he wrote his name. "Mr. President, I read it all the time," Mrs. Moore said. He took her hand, held it, and said, "You know my mother was a saint. She died two years ago. She was a saint." ... Then he said, "You be a saint, too."

"Rosebud"! But that's not all. Nixon then decides to drag Sanchez (who begins to sound more and more like Sancho) along to a breakfast place he knows on Connecticut Avenue; when they discover it's locked they go to the Mayflower Hotel for hash. Back at the White House, he can't stop talking, volubly and rapidly, to everyone he meets in the halls. (Maybe manic depression is another theme to consider in the next few days.) Then he goes over to the OEOB and wakes up the soldiers sleeping there. And there, finally, you can see what he's doing. He's trying to live out a fantasy that was lit in his head the first time he read Henry V ("a little touch of Harry in the night," etc.).

The only problem is, the students think he's demented. ("I hope it was because he was tired," says one, "but most of what he was saying was absurd.") What's more, he has such a tone-deafness to drama that he hectors his staff in a memo about how to interpret this fugue ("qualities of spirit, emotion, of the depth and mystery of life which this whole visit really was all about"). Aside from the fact that Nixon wasn't drunk, the evening reminds me of certain all-nighters from college. Remember those? Lucky we didn't bring along an anecdotalist.

The people I know are wild over this book. So am I, and my bet is you are, too. But I work in Washington, and you're a historian. Do you think a not-particularly-political person with no memory of Watergate--and that means pretty much anyone under 35--could make head or tail of the Oval Office power games here? I'm not sure. It's fascinating to watch Charles Colson "grow" into his Watergate role--but then again, we know who Chuck Colson is. Henry Kissinger's virtual erasure of Secretary of State William Rogers--who was in the dark about everything from the invasion of Cambodia to the invasion of Laos to the China trip--is a lesson in bureaucratic Machiavellianism that will merit study a century from now, but only if you know the background. And could a reader get the gist of Watergate out of just this book? I think not. I'd recommend that younger (or less political) readers not tackle this book until they've had a go at either Anthony Lukas' Nightmare or Stanley Kutler's The Wars of Watergate. Reeves' book may be the richest trove of Nixoniana ever assembled, but it's a grad-school-level text.

Best,
Chris

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This week, Slate's Book Club investigates Richard Reeves' new biography of Richard Nixon. (Click here for more on our format, here to learn how you can write for the Book Club, and here to buy the book.)

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