September 27–October 4, 2001

book quicks|nonfiction

President Nixon: Alone in the White House

By Richard Reeves
Simon and Schuster, 704 pp., $35

In May 1970, HUD secretary George Romney announced he would take a salary cut to help balance the federal budget. “That’s it,” President Richard Nixon told his domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman. “An ineffective grandstand play. He’s got to go.”

“Two weeks, later, on June 9,” Richard Reeves notes in President Nixon: Alone in the White House, “the President sent Ehrlichman a memo asking whether it was possible to cut his own salary from $100,000 a year to $75,000 a year. He added that Ehrlichman should check to see if he could get the $25,000 back later as pension.”

With anecdotes like this, and without editorializing or cheerleading or putting Nixon onto the psychiatrist’s couch one more time as other authors have done, Reeves is content to let Nixon’s words and actions speak for themselves. By standing in the background, he gives us a front-row view to Nixon’s historic fall.

President Nixon: Alone in the White House is patterned after Reeves’ acclaimed 1993 President Kennedy volume; rather than a sweeping overview of Nixon’s five years in office, Reeves focuses upon 39 select moments in the Nixon White House (the Apollo 11 landing, the visit to China etc.).

Reeves shows how Nixon was at once both the most self-aware president (in an October 1972 note, Nixon described himself as “the national conscience”) and the most self-deceptive (insisting in a 1969 memo that he is “less affected by press criticism and opinion than any Pres in recent memory”). We see Nixon’s mastery of big-picture politics (grandiose analyses of Churchill and Lincoln) and his utter inability for small talk; he met with anti-Vietnam protesters after Kent State, only to discuss college football and surfing. We get Nixon’s paeans to decency and morality — he rooted against Stanford in the 1971 Rose Bowl after quarterback Jim Plunkett “had posed for photographs with topless dancers in San Francisco” — along with his profanity-laced diatribes against the media, bureaucrats (“here to screw us”) as well as “the fucking Jews.”

The book’s subtitle is apt, as we get Nixon alone, without much of Reeves’ own analysis or biases in the narrative. He has accomplished something here that seems impossible, a dispassionate book about our 37th president. Yet it’s one of the year’s most compelling political reads.

—Andrew Milner

Richard Reeves will read Wed., Oct. 3 at 7 p.m., Blauvelt Theater, Friends Select School, 17th & the Parkway. Free. 215-563-4184.