“President Nixon: Alone in the White House” by Richard Reeves was published in 2001. Reeves is a former journalist and the author of sixteen books, including biographies of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. He has served as Chief Political Correspondent for The New York Times, as National Editor and Columnist for New York Magazine and Esquire and was Chief Correspondent for PBS’s “Frontline.”
Reeves’s book is neither a comprehensive survey of Nixon’s life nor a thorough study of his presidency. But anyone who has read the author’s 1993 biography of JFK will recognize this 609-page book’s rapid pace and its birds-eye view of events which took place in and around the Oval Office during most (but not quite all) of Nixon’s presidency.
The book begins with a first-person introduction to its subject – Reeves’s perspective on his presidency, his character and his idiosyncrasies. It quickly launches into a day-to-day (and often moment-to-moment) account of Nixon’s presidency beginning with his first full day in office. About three-dozen chapters later, the book concludes its coverage as Nixon watched his political world begin to collapse in April 1973 – about sixteen months before his resignation but after it became clear his presidency would not have a happy ending.
Reeves provides the reader with unique access to Nixon’s presidency; he seems to capture every significant moment as though he was in the room at the time – and was capable of recording everything for posterity. Along the way Reeves occasionally injects his own assessment of Nixon’s character into the narrative but he generally allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions from the historical record.
Readers familiar with Nixon will value the insight provided into this brooding president’s character as well the debates concerning various foreign and domestic policy matters. Reeves’s discussion of Nixon’s decision to end convertibility of the US dollar into gold and implement wage and price controls was surprisingly interesting as was his review of Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972.
What is missing from this fascinating survey of Nixon’s life between 1969 and 1973 is any meaningful coverage of his pre-presidency, a serious analysis of his last months in office and anything about his nearly twenty-year post-presidency. And because Reeves fails to follow Nixon closely to the end of his presidency (though there is an Epilogue which captures highlights) he is unable to step back and consider Nixon’s place in history.
But even while it focuses on his first four years in the White House, Reeves’s book often flies so close to the ground that it can be hard for readers unfamiliar with Nixon (or his era) to understand the “big picture.” And because Nixon’s daily routine was often chaotic, the narrative tends to bounce quickly from topic to topic with little time to explore the intricacies of any one issue.
Overall, Richard Reeves’s “President Nixon: Alone in the White House” is a uniquely instructive – and thoroughly fascinating – review of Nixon as president. But because it is not comprehensive (and fails to exhaust even his presidency) it is neither an ideal introduction to Nixon “the man” nor a complete study of his White House tenure. Nevertheless, for readers familiar with this obsessively paranoid man and his illuminating background, Reeves’s book is uncommonly valuable.
Overall rating: 4 stars