Speaker reveals private turmoil of Nixon presidency

Elaine Helm

After failing as a novelist in France, author Richard Reeves turned his desire to write fictional presidential diaries into a career writing successful biographies of several U.S. presidents.

Profiling presidents, he told an audience in Fisk 217, “was the only way you could learn what it was like to be president, which was what I wanted.”

Reeves’ most recent book, “Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House,” was the subject of Wednesday’s discussion, part of the Medill School of Journalism’s Crain Lecture Series.

About 150 students, professors and Evanston residents listened as Reeves described Nixon’s relations with the press and the introverted side of his personality.

“Nixon was, by most standards, nuts,” Reeves said. “I think his problems were psychological.”

Nixon’s personality made media relations difficult. A press conference, Reeves said, involved a week of preparations as Nixon memorized responses for hundreds of possible questions. His responses became so mechanical that a member of the press once said it “was difficult to remember he was human,” Reeves said.

In addition to scripting his public dialogues, Nixon wrote thousands of memos to himself. These memos are the source of much material in Reeves’ book.

“His dialogues with himself were really the most important conversations going on in the White House,” Reeves said.

President John F. Kennedy, who Reeves profiled in another book, ran his administration “like a wheel with him as the hub,” Reeves said. He contrasted Kennedy’s presidency with Nixon’s, describing how Nixon stood at a window in the White House overlooking the rose gardens and said, “You know, this would be a great job if you didn’t have to deal with people.”

This portrayal of the private side of Nixon moved at least one person in the audience.

“It’s kind of sad,” Medill graduate student Jeff Yoders said. “You realize he felt so alone.”

Reeves’ anecdotes about Nixon also elicited laughs from the crowd. Bruce Brotine, a Speech freshman, said he appreciated the way Reeves used humor in his explanations of sensitive topics.

“It was great that he was able to put humor into a discussion of Nixon’s views on race,” Brotine said.

When Medill Dean Loren Ghiglione opened the floor to questions, one woman commented that Reeves’ discussions seemed negative and called it an injustice. Reeves retorted that the real injustice was spending six years on an 800-page book and being asked to talk about it in just 30 minutes.

Reeves also worked as political correspondent for the New York Times, is a visiting professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.