President Nixon: Alone in the White Houseby Richard Reeves
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Who was Richard Nixon? The most amazing thing about the man was not what he did as president, but that he became president. In President Nixon, Richard Reeves has used thousands of new interviews and recently discovered or declassified documents and tapes -- including Nixon's tortured memos to himself and unpublished sections of H. R. Haldeman's diaries -- to offer a nuanced and surprising portrait of the brilliant and contradictory man alone in the White House.
President Nixon is a startling narrative of a desperately introverted man who dreamed of becoming the architect of his times. Late at night, he sat upstairs in the White House writing notes to himself on his yellow pads, struggling to define himself and his goals: "Compassionate, Bold, New, Courageous...Zest for the job (not lonely but awesome). Goals -- reorganized govt...Each day a chance to do something memorable for someone. Need to be good to do good...Need for joy, serenity, confidence, inspiration."
But downstairs he was building a house of deception. He could trust no one because in his isolation he thought other people were like him. He governed by secret orders and false records, memorizing scripts for public appearances and even for one-on-one meetings with his own staff and cabinet. His principal assistants, Haldeman and Henry Kissinger, spied on him as he spied on them, while cabinet members, generals, and admirals spied on all of them -- rifling briefcases and desks, tapping each other's phones in a house where no one knew what was true anymore.
Nixon's first aim was to restore order in an America at war with itself over Vietnam. But in fact he prolonged the fighting there, lying systematically about what was happening both in the field and in the peace negotiations. He startled the world by going to communist China and seeking détente with the Soviet Union -- and then secretly persuaded Mao and Brezhnev to lie for him to protect petty White House secrets. Still, he was a man of vision, imagining a new world order, trying to stall the deadly race war he believed was inevitable between the West, including Russia, and Asia, led by China and Japan. At home, he promised welfare reform, revenue sharing, drug programs, and environmental protection, and he presided, reluctantly, over the desegregation of public schools -- all the while declaring that domestic governance was just building outhouses in Peoria.
Reeves shows a presidency doomed from the start. It begins with Nixon and Kissinger using the CIA to cover up a 1969 murder by American soldiers in Vietnam that led to the theft and publication of the Pentagon Papers, then to secret counterintelligence units in the White House and finally to the burglaries and cover-up that came to be known as Watergate.
Richard Reeves's President Nixon will stand as the authoritative account of Nixon in the White House. It is an astonishing story.
Walter Isaacson Author of Kissinger: A Biography Reeves has once again succeeded in making a presidency come alive....[Captures] Nixon's brooding and lonely personality as well as his subtle mind. With a wealth of color about key days and decisions, the book shows what it is really like to be president.
Bob Woodward Author of Maestro A wealth of information that makes the absolute convincing case that Nixon was not just alone but isolated, walled off, and even lonely. May we never again have a president so cut off from the rest of humanity. It is a haunting story that no reader will ever forget.
David Maraniss Author of When Pride Still Mattered [Places] the reader inside the lonely world of President Nixon, day after day, like no one has before....There are hundreds of surprises here for even the most obsessed Nixon watchers.
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Prologue: August 9, 1974
At midnight on August 8, 1974, Stephen Bull, the personal assistant to the President of the United States, walked into the President's office, the Oval Office. It was quiet and dark in the West Wing of the White House. The television cameras were gone. The correspondents and the technicians had folded up their equipment and left after the thirty-seventh president, Richard Milhous Nixon, had announced, two hours before, that he would resign the office at noon on August 9. Bull decided not to turn on the lights. He could see enough in the dim light from the hallway. He went in, picked up Nixon's briefcase, put it near the doorway, and then began to pack away the things on the desk. The President was flying home to California the next day, and Bull decided to put everything on the desk there, just the way it was here, as if nothing had happened. He began with Nixon's reading glasses and a photograph of the President's two daughters, Tricia and Julie. As he picked up the appointment book, he bumped against the silver cigarette case the girls had given the President on the day he was inaugurated. The case was knocked off the desk onto the rug. It opened and the music box inside began to play its tinny tune, "Hail to the Chief."
Later, the President's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who had spent twenty-three years with him in good times and bad, and an assistant named Marge Acker came in and began emptying the drawers into cardboard boxes. There were moving boxes in the hallways everywhere in the building. The place smelled of burnt paper, as some of the most powerful men in the country threw memos and files into their office fireplaces. The office of Nixon's last chief of staff, General Alexander M. Haig, was filled with giant clear plastic bags that held shredded documents. "Duplicates," he said. In the Oval Office the women packed up everything in the "Wilson desk," which Nixon used because he admired Woodrow Wilson. Then they moved on to his other two desks. The one President Dwight D. Eisenhower had used in the Oval Office, when Nixon was vice president, was in room 175 of the Executive Office Building, next to the White House; Nixon often worked alone there. The last one, which was smaller, was the "Lincoln desk" in the President's sitting room in the living quarters upstairs near his bedroom; Abraham Lincoln had used it in his summer retreat, a farmhouse only a mile away, north of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Miss Woods began with the center drawer of the Wilson desk. In it was a folder marked: "THE UNAUTHORIZED DISCLOSURE OF THE INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THE ATTACHED DOCUMENT(S) COULD BE PREJUDICIAL TO THE DEFENSE INTEREST OF THE UNITED STATES...Please put in the middle drawer of the President's desk." Inside were Nixon's funeral plans, six rose-colored pages, photographs, and an Avis Rent-a-Car map, with a description of Rose Hills cemetery in Whittier, California, the town where he grew up. "Rose Hills is renowned as Southern California's most spacious and naturally beautiful Memorial Park." There was a list of honorary pallbearers, as well as a list of six musical selections, from "God Bless America" to "California, Here I Come." Next to the California song, the poor boy from Whittier who had become president had written, "Played softly and slowly."
Into a box it went, along with letters, stacks of newspaper clippings and polling summaries, the plastic belts of dictating machines, even a Halloween mask from a party. Most of what went into the boxes were the President's memos to himself, hand-written over five years on long yellow legal pads or dictated late at night and transcribed the next day. "To do" lists and "to be" lists -- about what he wanted from history, what kind of president he wanted to be, what kind of man he wanted to be. American self-improvement lectures to himself -- the most important dialogue in the White House, an introvert's dialogue with himself.
One of the first of the lists, from the Eisenhower desk, was written late at night on February 6, 1969, Nixon's seventeenth day as president. He was preparing for an interview with Hugh Sidey, who wrote a column called "The Presidency" for both Time and Life magazines, and he wrote three pages of resolutions to himself:
Compassionate, Bold, New, Courageous...Zest for the job (not lonely but awesome). Goals -- reorganized govt. Idea magnet...
Mrs. RN -- glamour, dignity...
Open Channels for Dissent...Progress -- Participation, Trustworthy, Open-minded.
Most powerful office. Each day a chance to do something memorable for someone. Need to be good to do good...The nation must be better in spirit at the end of term. Need for joy, serenity, confidence, inspiration.
One drawer in Ike's old desk in that hideaway was stuffed with letters Nixon had read and kept for some reason, along with the Dictaphone belts. The letters were the same kind any man kept, the important ones, or those that inspired or just flattered him. The oldest one in the desk turned out to be important. It was from Claude Kirk, the governor of Florida, who wrote on May 31, 1969: "In regard to the replacement of Justice Fortas, I want to bring to your attention a Federal judge in this district who meets what I believe is your criteria for experience, philosophy, and personal character. His name is Judge Harrold Carswell...To paraphrase the play entitled 'A Man For All Seasons,' I can tell you that Justice Carswell is a man for all 'regions.'..." There was flattery from Theodore H. White in June 1969, along with the first copy off the press of his book The Making of the President, 1968. True to form, the author's prose was rich: "This book whose hero is Richard M. Nixon...My previous reporting of Richard Nixon must I know have hurt. If I feel differently now it is not that there is a new Richard Nixon or a new Teddy White but that slowly truths force their way on all of us...this book tries to describe the campaign of a man of courage and conscience."
In the first days of January 1970, alone in EOB 175, Nixon gave himself a pep talk, writing:
Add element of lift to each appearance...Hard work -- Imagination -- Compassion -- Leadership -- Understanding of young -- Intellectual expansion...
Cool -- Strong -- Organized -- Temperate -- Exciting...Excitement -- Joy in Life -- Sharing. Lift spirit of people -- Pithy, memorable phrases.
Some time after that, on an undated page found in the Oval Office, he wrote:
Foreign Policy = strength. 1. War is difficult -- But our successes are hidden -- and ending war will be denied us. 2. Must emphasize -- Courage, Stands alone...Knows more than anyone else. Towers above advisers. World leader.
Restoration of Dignity. Family man -- Not a playboy -- respects office too much -- but fun.
Extraordinary intelligence -- memory -- Idealism -- Love of country -- Concern for old -- poor -- Refusal to exploit.
Yet must be personal and warm.
On November 15, 1970, he wrote himself two pages of notes that stayed in the desk in EOB 175 until they were packed away by Bull. They began: "2 years less one week or 6 years less one week," and went on:
I have learned about myself and the Presidency. From this experience I conclude:
The primary contribution a President can make is on Spiritual lift -- not material solutions.
1. The staff -- particularly K & H -- with my active cooperation have taken too much of my time in purely material decisions which could be left to others --
2. Harlow et al. have dragged me into too many Congressional problems.
3. My speech & idea group is inadequate -- but part of the problem is that I have spent too little time with them --
4. The Press, the Intellectual establishment, and the partisan Dems are hopelessly against -- Better means must be found to go over them to people.
5. I must find a way to finesse the Cabinet, staff, Congress, political types -- who take time, but could do their job sans my participation. Symbolic meetings should be the answer.
Primarily -- I must recognize responsibility to use power up to the hilt in areas where no one else could be effective --
Then he made a list of new resolutions:
1. Stop recreation except purely for exercise...
2. Need for more reading...
3. Need for more small social events...
4. Need for spiritual lift -- each Sunday...
5. Need for optimistic up-beat psychology...
6. Need for more stimulating people to talk to --
So little time, so much that could be done. Alone by one of his White House desks or at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, or in the California and Florida homes he bought for himself and then called "the Western White House" and "the Southern White House," he gnawed at the same themes: the unfriendly press, his disobedient staff and inadequate speechwriters, people who did not appreciate how hard he worked or did not emphasize his courtesy, his warmth, his thoughtfulness when they talked of him to outsiders. There was pain, too, in his serial self-analysis. He could be happy, but he could find no joy.
In the last days of 1970, alone in the Lincoln sitting room, Nixon wrote:
Every day is the last. Make it count. Is there anything I failed to do today -- I will wish I could do when I no longer have the power to do it?
That was piled in with a note from his brother, Don, a man who always seemed to have a business deal almost done, and who had been helped this time by Thomas A. Brady, an attaché in the United States embassy in Madrid. "A characteristic of the Spaniard is that he never forgets a favor or a friendly act," Brady wrote to the President's brother, saying that people over there always appreciated Richard Nixon's pursuit of Alger Hiss as a communist, because Hiss, then a State Department official, had successfully opposed the admission of Spain to the United Nations in 1945. On the bottom of Brady's note, President Nixon scrawled: "H -- Let's see that Brady gets a promotion."
In March 1971, Nixon's approval rating dropped from 56 percent to 51 percent in the Gallup poll -- his desk drawers contained sheets of advance numbers supplied privately by both George Gallup and Louis Harris, the country's biggest names in public opinion survey research, and by his own pollsters, paid from the many bank accounts and stashes of political cash maintained for him. Trying to figure why, he wrote:
People crave a leader...Our major failure is an obsession with programs. Competent, grey men. We lack color...Maintain Mystery. RN is not going to be exhibitionist -- his acts...his strength must be played up.
Not long after, Nixon tucked away a letter dated April 5, 1971, from a man with a gift for flattery, his old adversary Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Harry S Truman. As a rising Republican star in California, Nixon had attacked the Democratic president as "a graduate of Dean Acheson's Cowardly College of Communist Containment." Acheson, who was in fact every bit as tough on communism as Nixon was, had reached out to Nixon, giving him support on Vietnam. Nixon reciprocated by sending him The Turning Point, a book about the early days of the Republic. Acheson thanked him, writing: "Jefferson to me is a baffling figure...He had enormous talents -- a real 18th Century man, even more gifted than Franklin. But he always seemed to be as much interested in words as in the reality behind them. The more solid, less glittering talents of George Washington is what it took to get the country started."
Nixon underlined "less glittering talents." Perhaps the President saved the letter because he read "Kennedy" and "Nixon" for "Jefferson" and "Washington"; that was almost certainly the way Acheson meant it to be read. Nixon wrote one word on the letter: "True."
Later that month he also annotated and kept a letter dated April 28, 1971, from a film publicist named David Brown, who wrote: "You have achieved in your own way what General De Gaulle achieved for France..." The President underlined that and added in his own hand, "A good theme."
The President's notes to himself from the next year, the election year of 1972, dwelled on even greater frustration about his public image -- usually at great length. Once again, at night, he was trying to define himself. On October 10, 1972, flying from his Florida home in Key Biscayne back to Washington, he worried, not for the first time, about how he would be remembered after all his elections were over, writing:
"Presidents noted for -- F.D.R. -- Charm. Truman -- Gutsy. Ike -- Smile, prestige. Kennedy -- Charm. LBJ -- Vitality. RN -- ?"
One of his ideas was: "The national conscience."
Then, after reminding himself to send a gift of cigars to Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, President Nixon wrote out this question for "K":
Have we misjudged V.C. from beginning -- 1. "Running to wire -- exhausted." 2. "Stop U.S. dissent and they'll talk." 3. "Give them a jolt and they'll talk."
Then two weeks later, alone at 1 a.m. on October 23, 1972, in the Lincoln sitting room, he wrote this to himself:
I have decided my major role is moral leadership. I cannot exercise this adequately unless I speak out more often and more eloquently. The problem is time to prepare...I must take the time to prepare and leave technical matters to others.
On his sixtieth birthday, January 9, 1973, he wrote:
Age -- Not as much time. Don't spin your wheels. Blessed with good health...Older Men -- De Gaulle, Ike, Yoshida, Adenauer, Churchill, Chou En Lai, Hoover...No one is finished -- until he quits.
Copyright © 2001 by Reeves-O'Neill, Inc.
What People are Saying About This
(Bob Woodward, author of Maestro)
(David Brooks, author of Bobos in Paradise)
(Walter Isaacson, author of Kissinger: A Biography)
(Ben Bradlee, author of A Good Life)
Meet the Author
Richard Reeves is the author of presidential bestsellers, including President Nixon and President Kennedy, acclaimed as the best nonfiction book of the year by Time magazine. A syndicated columnist and winner of the American Political Science Association's Carey McWilliams Award, he lives in New York and Los Angeles.
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