President Nixon: Alone in the White House

We've Only Just Begun ... to Understand Nixon
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 15 2001 4:53 PM

President Nixon: Alone in the White House

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Dear Chris,

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I agree with all your judgments. Except I would have hesitated before letting the Slate readership know about the all-nighters we used to pull in our callow youth. Gravitas, you know.

But in a sense, we just did it again--I stayed up most of the night to finish this sucker, listening to the Carpenters to create the right ambience--an early '70s cocktail of woozy sentimentality mixed with dark brooding over life's insults. Just right for an evening with RN.

My first reaction, while sleep-deprived, is emphatic: This book rules. I liked it from the wonky perspective of someone who ponders how to use archival sources to resurrect the past, and I liked it as one of the millions of Americans still fascinated by our 37th president. I'll begin with the second, but perhaps we can discuss the first in a follow-up e-mail.

Why are we still obsessed with Nixon? There are at least three reasons. First, as you point out, the piercing intelligence. Second, nostalgia for a riveting time--the Nixon years (1969-1974) were every bit as interesting as the 1960s, which tend to get all the glory from Gap marketing types. Third, and most of all, he was just so twisted.

All three elements come through loud and clear in this important book. His political smarts are displayed on every page--and Reeves doesn't even begin telling the story until well after Nixon's most amazing feat of all--the 1968 election. Too few Americans grasp how revolutionary it was that Nixon was ever elected president after his devastating defeats in 1960 and 1962. Try to imagine that instead of George W. Bush, J. Danforth Quayle had eked out a three-way election in 2000, reinventing his personality and becoming statesmanlike in the process. That only begins to give the idea.

Nixon's political brilliance is also impressive given that few leaders were ever less outfitted for the relentless conveyor belt of brief human interactions that lie at the heart of American politics. The concept of solitude dominates the book--from the title to the cover photo (Nixon stares out a window, his back to the camera) to the Wordsworthian prelude ("a mind forever voyaging through the strange seas of thought, alone"). Scene after scene shows Nixon alone, jotting out gnomic mantras ("zest for the job--not lonely but awesome") on his yellow legal pad in Room 175 of the Old Executive Office Building. Parenthetical note: Nixon was the only president before or since to ask for a private office in the OEOB, the giant Victorian structure adjacent to the White House where most mid- and lower-level presidential appointees toil away in Bartlebyesque anonymity.

But anyone like me who grew up thinking that Nixon was a minor figure, unqualified for the presidency, is just plain wrong. Throughout the book, which claims to be in search of Nixon's inner world, we see what an original thinker he was. I can't confirm your ranking that he was No. 1 in presidential IQ, partly because I think these ranking systems are overrated and partly because I can't put anyone above Lincoln. But having said that, it's clear that anyone foolish enough to underestimate Nixon did so at their peril. His prose was mediocre, and his speeches forgettable, but no one in that era could match his shrewdness at political chess. A phrase like "silent majority" drew derision from Democrats at the time, but it articulated an accurate and important concept, and drew that majority toward him. He understood that George Wallace's bloc of alienated southerners were potential Republicans, and he reshaped the GOP in ways that accelerated the arrival of Ronald Reagan.

Then there's his foreign policy, which would be dazzling if you could excise Vietnam and Cambodia but still impresses three decades later. Everyone knows that recognizing China was a masterstroke--what comes through this book is the degree to which Nixon conceived the plan on his own, well ahead of Henry Kissinger, whom Reeves describes as a power-drunk flatterer and back-stabber, cut straight out of the role he was obviously meant to play: Dr. Strangelove. I had forgotten about the Romania trip that helped Nixon think about China, or his fascinating friendship with Charles de Gaulle, or a host of other connecting threads. I was grateful to have them respooled.

But of course, any conversation about how far he moved the ball downfield has to come alongside our memory of the disastrous fumbles (football talk comes easily with Nixon--that's how he and Hunter S. Thompson forged their unlikely working relationship). I agree with you that Watergate is poorly served by this book. It's perplexing--the drama most of us link to Nixon is strangely fragmented here, and the gripping second half of the Watergate story is entirely missing (the last date described in detail is April 30, 1973, and all you have to do is read the epilogue to see how much Reeves leaves out).

Yet Reeves is brilliant at rendering the paranoia that led to Watergate, and on countless occasions he conveys the breathtaking duplicity that never lay very far below the surface. The Pentagon spied on presidential phone calls; Nixon and Kissinger wiretapped federal employees to find out who was leaking to the press; everyone feared J. Edgar Hoover; and from the inaugural on, a spider's web of deceit expanded outward from the Oval Office and its insecure occupant. The Quakers call their spiritual essence "the inner light." I think we need a darker phrase to convey whatever was inside of this guy.

You capture perfectly the sad madness of Nixon's search for companionship the night of the Kent State press conference (your Don Quixote comparison is inspired). A passage I found powerful (there are many) came near the end. Nixon fires Haldeman and Ehrlichman at Camp David, returns to the White House, shoves an FBI agent investigating Haldeman's office, then takes a call from Haldeman and tells him, "Goddammit, and I love you." Just as I read that, Karen Carpenter started her eerily malevolent interpretation of "Ticket to Ride," and I assure you, there was not a dry eye in the house.

I want to answer more of your questions and pose a few of my own, including what you think of Reeves' style and bias. Better left for next time. I'll sign out, but let me make this perfectly clear: Richard Reeves has written a major Nixon book.

Rosebud!

Ted

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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.)