03
Feb
15

Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House – Richard Reeves

President Nixon: Alone in the White HousePresident Nixon: Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves

A huge, exhaustive look at Nixon’s first term of office, Reeves’ book is a compelling day-by-day look at the making and unmaking of a presidency, often at the same time. It’s an interesting read.

When Nixon rolled into the Oval Office in 1969, he brought in a handful of loyalists whose jobs were to insulate him from stuff he deemed un-presidential. If people wanted to talk with him, they had to go through Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman first. So right from the get-go, maybe Nixon’s presidency was doomed: he didn’t trust his staff, loathed the media and had nasty, paranoid edge. He assumed everyone else did, too.

The Nixon that emerges out of the pages of this biography is one of a guy who couldn’t trust people and assumed everyone was as paranoid, cynical and prone to backstabbing as he was. He’d lie to one person, tell another lie to a second and wait to see which lie got into the media first. He had a whole cabinet at his disposal but trusted just a handful of people: namely Henry Kissinger, Haldeman, John Mitchell and John Ehrlichman.

So he plotted, plotted and plotted. At his direction, journalists had their phones bugged and conversations were secretly recorded. Even before Gordon Liddy proposed operation Gemstone – more on that in a second – the Nixon White House reads like something out of Machiavelli or Game of Thrones, a place where everyone plotted how best to stab someone in the back. Indeed, things got nasty early on, when the White House helped cover up the murder of a Vietnamese agent by CIA agents, a move Nixon personally pushed along and helped inspire Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers.

Eventually because of that and other leaks, a second and more infamous cast of characters comes into play: Liddy, Charles Colson and The Plumbers. These people were assigned to find and fix leaks in the White House, to stop people from talking to the press and to deal with what the White House deemed enemies. In one particularly insane passage, Liddy pitches a program he called Gemstone to Mitchell and John Dean:

“I have secured an option to lease a pleasure craft docked in the canal directly in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel. It is more than 60 feet long, with several staterooms, and expensively decorated in a Chinese motif. It can also be wired for sight and sound… we can, without much trouble, compromise these officials through the charms of some ladies I have arranged to have living on the boat.” (pg 430)

Mitchell and Dean both think the plan is insane, but regardless Liddy is kept on anyway, and soon plans are hatched for bugging prominent Democratic leaders.

It’s easy to focus on the seamy side of this book, but Reeves covers the triumphs of Nixon’s Presidency, too. He goes in depth on how Nixon reopened relations with China, the long and arduous peace talks with North Vietnam and the SALT treaty with the Soviet Union.

In many of these foreign deals, Kissinger played a key role, often operating under only Nixon and in total secrecy from everyone, including Secretary of State William P. Rogers. The more I read, the more Kissinger reminded me of Nixon, too: paranoid, often near hysteria and constantly plotting against others. Unlike Nixon, though, he loved attention from the media, which eventually gave him a pass on some of the stuff he does in these pages, like ordering the bombing of Cambodia.

The book more or less focuses on Nixon’s first term, ending with the President admitting defeat and wandering off to soak in a hot tub in April 1973. A brief epilogue covers the final months of his presidency in brief.

Reeves does an admirable job cutting through the many, many documents Nixon left in his wake. There are hours of tapes, thousands of notes and even annotations on his news summary, just to mention what Nixon was behind. And while the book is detailed, only occasionally did I find the sheer mass of information overwhelming.

More often, it read like a screenplay, cutting between Nixon in Moscow and Liddy breaking into Larry O’Brien’s office, two currents representing the highs and lows of Nixon: his success in foreign affairs and his paranoid tendencies that ultimately brought him down.

It’s also worth noting the book is well-researched, with a good 50 pages of notes, a lengthy bibliographic essay by Jonathan Cassidy and had interviews with everyone from Nixon and several of his cabinet officials (although John Connelly is an interesting omission, if not a surprising one; he passed on Caro, too).

A final note: between the lines, Reeves sketches out what we could call the post-Nixon era. As President, Nixon looked to cater to what he called the Silent Majority. The way he went out to make the Republican Party more like that of southern Democrats, the way he relentlessly attacked the media and the way he tried to unite working class people against students, intellectuals and journalists seems like the beginning of the populist playbook used by everyone from Reagan to Sarah Palin, with varying degrees of success. Nixon: he haunts us still. (I believe Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland covers this in better detail; I haven’t had a chance to read it yet).

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s maybe a little too much at once for people looking for a concise look at the Nixon presidency and it ends a little sooner than I’d have liked, President Nixon is a well researched and compelling read about his first four years. Recommended.

View all my reviews

Advertisements


Archives


%d bloggers like this: