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Solitary Dick

Reeves gives inside look at a twisted man's White House

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During his abbreviated two-term presidency, Richard M. Nixon spent much of his time alone -- or finding ways to be alone. On many occasions, he reached for yellow legal pads and jotted his jumbled psyche onto the page, veering across optimism, self-loathing, paranoia and historical concerns. Consider his 17th day as president. Nixon, preparing for an interview with Hugh Sidey, the eminent presidential chronicler, scrawled three pages of objectives. They read: "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 the term. Need for joy, serenity, confidence, inspiration."

Around the same time, Nixon told staffers something he would repeat many times while in office: "I want everyone fired, I mean it this time."

After a bad landing on one of his first flights aboard Air Force One, the 37th president blurted, "That's it! No more landing at airports!"

Veteran Washington pundit Richard Reeves combines the former president's public and private tirades with his diary-styled legal pad entries to great effect in his absorbing, detailed Nixon biography. The book, like the author's masterly 1993 John Kennedy bio, offers a view from the center of the White House, in this case giving readers a sense of the paranoia and deception plaguing the Nixon Administration and its key players.

The president's legendary loathing of the Eastern Establishment and media elite provide ample evidence of Nixon's distrust and dark nature. Less than a month after taking office, he responded to a staffer's summary of uniformly glowing press clippings with the following: "You don't understand, they are waiting to destroy us."

Reeves renders his material superbly. The research is thorough and his use of newly released documents sheds new, and harsher, light on Nixon's megalomania. Oft-analyzed, Nixon's familiar portrait as a complicated, enigmatic man falls by the wayside here. Reeves' clean, neutral prose leads readers to an inevitable conclusion: Nixon was a corrosive, lying, tortured and abusive president, eviscerating the principles of the nation at almost every turn.

If Nixon looks bad, his eminence grise and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, looks worse. A thin-skinned, petulant egomaniac, Kissinger (sometimes wisely) ignores presidential orders, wiretaps others in the Administration, demands special treatment from Nixon and, invariably, runs to the press with off-the-record background sessions so he can trash Nixon in print. Reeves ably demonstrates that "Machiavellian" describes Kissinger in the same manner that "slick-fielding shortstop" befits Ozzie Smith.

In addition to the fascinating internal dialogue filling Nixon's yellow legal pads, Reeves mines a treasure trove of White House news summaries. The press-clipping capsules prove invaluable for Nixon's extensive marginalia, testament to a publicity-consumed man both outraged and buoyed by media perceptions.

Many of these summary scribblings reveal Nixon's crude political calculations and treacherously facile, if not abhorrent, racial views. Glancing at a news capsule calling for a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the president wrote: "No! Never!" Then he turned to H.R. Haldeman and told his chief of staff, "That would be like making Nero Christ."

Presidential aficionados and Nixonians will recognize many of Reeves' set pieces, but they still prove intriguing. Here is King Timahoe, Nixon's beleaguered canine, who, despite staffers laying a trail of dog biscuits to the Commander in Chief's desk, won't approach when Nixon is in the room. In another, Nixon, giddy and delirious, caps a post-press conference late night by stealing off to the Lincoln Memorial for a dawn chat with startled student protesters. And Tricky Dick exceeds all expectations when it comes to prevarication -- he lies about anything and everything and suspects everyone else does the same.

A shy man who disdained crowds and social gatherings, Nixon's insularity knew no bounds. He relied on three men -- Haldeman, Kissinger and John Ehrlichman -- for his entire view of the world. Nixon was all the happier relying on just one adviser: himself. The immoral flouting of democratic principles surprises few. Perhaps more devastating is the self-pity, self-loathing and self-aggrandizement inherent in his every action. Nixon carps over his press secretary's failure to promulgate the presidential work ethic. All the while, Nixon bemoans the minutiae eating away at his time, preventing required solitude for strategic, big-picture thinking. Without fail, such tirades are followed by a presidential memo on, say, thank-you note policies.

Aides cryptically noted Nixon's lack of stamina. He rarely worked more than three or four hours at a stretch and often wasted free days designated for long-range planning and speech writing. Insignificant details consumed him. Many days, Nixon could be found in the Executive Office Building Room 175, a hideaway used for presidential naps. Nixon being Nixon, the naps were secret, marked "staff time" on his schedules. This didn't dissuade him from gravely telling staffers sleep was something many turned to "to avoid facing problems and making decisions."

Nixon hates Jews, pities blacks, drags his feet on school desegregation, lies about Vietnam, sneers at college protesters, even enlists the stupid, vulgar Spiro Agnew as one of his many henchmen. (Agnew once defended not campaigning in poor areas thusly: "If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all.") For those who may have nodded off during the mid-1970s, this president isn't so hot on campaign finance matters, either. As with most tragic characters, the most illuminating and entertaining moments involve the man's infinite contradictions. A personal favorite: At the same time Nixon battled to whittle down welfare programs, he spent more than $1 million in government funds (including $621 to replace an ice machine because, according to White House records, "The President does not like ice with holes in it"), sprucing up his "Western White House" in San Clemente, CA, and another $625,000 on the "Southern White House" in Key Biscayne, FL. The telling anecdotes and damning diary entries display Nixon's frayed nerves and battered soul. Despite, or perhaps because of, his many faults, Nixon remains a captivating figure on a fascinating, if crowded, stage. When one considers the exhaustive supply of Nixonian literature already available (Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men, for starters), as well as the Nixon Administration's distinction as the producer of more papers and documentation than any previous or succeeding White House occupants, Reeves' engaging, well-crafted work becomes all the more praiseworthy.

Only Nixon could go to China, yes. And only Nixon could be this embarrassing to the American presidency three decades after he left the political stage, tarnished for the moment and for the ages.

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