Reeves on Nixon: out from the center

October 07, 2001|By Edwin O. Guthman | By Edwin O. Guthman,Special to the Sun

President Nixon: Alone in the White House, by Richard Reeves. Simon & Schuster. 702 pages. $35.

For me to review anything written about President Richard Nixon, I first must set the record straight. I encountered Nixon initially in 1952. I was a young reporter for The Seattle Times, sent to cover Nixon when he came to the Pacific Northwest to campaign for the Eisenhower-Nixon presidential ticket, and I was shocked, frankly, by Nixon's failure to acknowledge his wife, Pat's, presence in public. She might just as well have been a lectern or a lamppost and that coldness underlay my opinion of Nixon from then on.

In 1961, I became Attorney General Robert Kennedy's press secretary, and after he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964 I went back to journalism as national editor of the Los Angeles Times. And in 1973, in the midst of the Watergate hearings, Nixon's White House counsel, John Dean, handed the Senate a list of 20 Nixon "enemies." I was No. 3, targeted mistakenly as "the primer mover" behind a Newsday investigation of Nixon's Key Biscayne banker pal, Charles G. "Bebe" Rebozo.

The same company, Times Mirror, owned Newsday and the Times. Overzealous White House investigators concluded I was "close to this matter." I wasn't. I had no part in it and no one else on the Times did either.

All that baggage notwithstanding, I read President Nixon: Alone in the White House with considerable interest because of Reeves' reputation for being a sound judge of complex governmental and political events -- this is his 10th book on public affairs -- and for his painstaking research. "I set out ... to reconstruct the Nixon presidency as it looked from the center," Reeves wrote in the introduction. "I was interested in what he knew and when he knew it and what he actually did -- sometimes day by day, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute."

The book begins with Nixon's first day in the White House as president -- Jan. 20, 1969. It details his tortuous, secretive moves to resolve the Vietnam War; Nixon's central role in opening relations with China after 25 years of little or no communication; negotiating ABM and SALT agreements with the Soviet Union and protecting the environment. It explains Nixon's preference for working alone for hours in hideaway offices and White House intrigue culminating in the Watergate burglary, the cover-up and Nixon's bitter resignation.

By that time, Reeves wrote: "So many layers of lies were needed to protect the layers of secrecy that no one, including the President himself, knew what the truth was anymore. No one inside the White House knew whom or what to believe."

As Reeves takes readers through the tumultuous affairs of state, he provides details of Nixon, the man -- that he hated news conferences "not so much because of his problems with the press, but because they exhausted him"; that 12 times -- often during a crisis -- he watched the movie Patton though the movie he viewed most often in the White House was Around the World in 80 Days.

At the end, Reeves includes a bibliographic essay by one of his University of Southern California students, Jonathan Cassidy, listing many of the hundreds of the books about Nixon and describing the status of Nixon tapes and White House documents -- where they are and what has been made public. It's a valuable, incredible survey, underscoring the depth of Reeves' seven years of research and his skill in writing a most readable account of Nixon's presidency.

Edwin O. Guthman, a professor at the University of Southern California school of journalism, was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1977 to 1987, and before that served on the Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Star. He was press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy when R.F.K. was U. S. Attorney General and when he first ran for the U.S. Senate. He has edited and written several books, including We Band of Brothers in 1971.

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