Inside The White House That Was Built Of Lies

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Vast oceans of words have been poured between hard covers trying to document and explain Richard Nixon, perhaps the most peculiar man ever to occupy the White House. Given this tidal wave, what more could be written that is worth swimming through? The answer is Richard Reeves' new book, President Nixon: Alone in the White House (Simon & Schuster; 702 pages; $35).

What Reeves has done is to tell the story of the Nixon presidency by focusing on key decisions and then, through a meticulous examination of logs, diaries, official memorandums and, of course, the White House tapes, reconstruct the events that both preceded and followed those decisions. The idea, he explains, is to try to re-create what it must have been like to have been President Nixon. Reeves used the same technique in writing brilliantly about John Kennedy's presidency, and what emerges from this new masterpiece of research is a distillation of Nixon and his men, making a kind of fine cognac out of the millions of barrels of Nixonian wine.

This essential Nixon is even weirder than we might remember. He was always on the run, moving restlessly from the Oval Office to his hideaway in the nearby Executive Office Building, to Camp David, then off to Key Biscayne, then suddenly to San Clemente. He was running to avoid the very thing most politicians crave: contact with other human beings. In each place, he wrote endlessly on yellow legal pads, issuing orders (many of which were wisely ignored by his staff), commenting in the margins of memorandums, annotating news summaries, denouncing his opponents and often his friends, urging ever more dangerous efforts to screw those he saw as his enemies, which seem to have included most of the rest of humanity.

Most pathetically, Nixon frequently penned what Reeves calls an introvert's "dialogues with himself," long lists of resolutions about what he needed to do to project himself as a person he was not. Only two weeks into his presidency he compiled three pages of self-instruction demanding that he be "Compassionate, Bold, New, Courageous," that he show "Zest for the job" and be seen as "not lonely, but awesome."

Always in these notes there were pleas that he wanted to be spared the need to meet with other people. After barely a year as President, he wrote, "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." As the Watergate scandals began to threaten his presidency, he met with his own party's Senate leader, Hugh Scott, and barked, "Our Senators are nothing but a bunch of jackasses. We can't count on them. F___ the Senate!"

Nixon lied constantly to protect his isolation. He lied to his closest staff members, to his Cabinet, to the nation, to the world. The Nixon staff lied to one another and to the President. Then they wiretapped one another, stole one another's files, examined one another's phone records, all in a hopeless effort to find out the truth under the layers of lies. It was, Reeves writes, "a White House of lies, a house organized for deception...even the insiders themselves could no longer penetrate to reality." Two of the most startling examples of the culture of deception occurred at summit meetings Nixon had with the Soviets and the Chinese. In both cases, Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, asked the foreign leaders to join them in lies to deceive Nixon's own Secretary of State, William Rogers.

If anyone comes off worse in this history than Nixon, it is Kissinger. In Reeves' account, the former National Security Adviser is a grotesque monument to ambition, insecurity and deception. Kissinger whined constantly to Nixon about his own enemies in the Administration, threatened repeatedly to resign unless stroked more thoroughly by the President, and then lied to the outside world about his role in policymaking and gossiped with the press about his boss's many weaknesses.

To some extent, Nixon rebuilt his public image after the disgrace of his resignation. But Reeves takes us back, often minute by minute, into the sewer of the Nixon presidency, and deepens our understanding of just how pathological it really was.