Far Too Strange for Fiction: Nixon, Tormented Tragic Hero

President Nixon: Alone in the White House , by Richard Reeves. Simon & Schuster, 702 pages, $35.

Artists of all stripes have taken a crack at him. Countless biographers, historians and armchair psychiatrists have tried to explain him-but still we demand more. Could any other politician inspire such fascination? No: George Bush (I and II), Ronald Reagan and even Bill Clinton are stick figures by comparison. Brilliant and vicious, tyrannical and weak, visionary and petty, spiteful and pitiful, Richard Milhous Nixon is our tragic hero, our Richard III, our Oedipus, our Lear.

Time (distance) has given him depth, dimensions we could not appreciate at first. Twenty-seven years after that August day when he summoned the strength for his final, absurd smile and double V-sign wave, the cartoon figure of R.N. as comic foil or sweaty, thick-browed villain will no longer do. The Nixon saga is too rich for that, a blend of high tragedy and low comedy, all with a weird psychic overlay. He is so many American stories all at once, he consumes so much of our culture: the poor kid who made good; the bad kid who got caught; the momma’s boy denied his father’s love; the loser who won; the winner who lost; the kid who never fit in. He cared nothing for politics; he cared for nothing but politics. He straddled the Cold War and Vietnam, political realignments we live with today. Crazy in patches but cool in crisis-and tormented, tormented, tormented.

Are we drawn to him because of the allure of the dark side, of villainy? Because of guilt for hating him so? Or is it because we are not handsome Kennedys or privileged Bushes or movie-star Reagans or slick, smart Clintons? We would not confess to cutting down the cherry tree. Could it be that we are Richard Nixons? That’s unanswerable. What we do know is that with Richard Nixon, artists’ depictions will not suffice. No novel or movie could capture him all. His truth was too strange to pass for credible fiction. With Richard Nixon, we need evidence. We must leave it to historians to tell his tale.

Richard Reeves’ compelling new book, Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House , provides a wonderful centerpiece to our ever-growing Nixonian epic. Our mad king has never been madder, or more beguiling, than in Mr. Reeves’ capable hands. He gives us a fresh take on the story; he recreates the Nixon White House from the inside, how it felt to be Nixon. Meticulously researched from newly uncovered materials-interviews, transcripts, diaries and memos (many written by Nixon himself)-Mr. Reeves sets up a camera in the Oval Office and allows us a peek at R.N.’s daily thoughts and doings, occasionally panning out to scenes beyond the White House walls for context, or to foreshadow events to come. We gaze over Nixon’s shoulder as he scrawls, on his beloved yellow legal pads, goals for himself (“Restore respect for office”) or memos to Pat and his daughters, instructing them to tell reporters of his “warm, human” qualities. We are reminded of his vindictiveness (he orders certain states be deprived of federal aid to punish them for electing unsupportive Senators), his pettiness (he commands the destruction of a White House tennis court because it’s frequented by a cabinet secretary he dislikes), his criminality (in exchange for a $2 million contribution to his slush fund, he raises federal price subsidies for milk-at a $100 million cost to the government), his anti-Semitism (“the fucking Jews” are blamed for a host of problems), his racism, his deviousness, his paranoia, his depressions-why we hated him so. Nixon’s cunning, instinctive political genius would make Karl Rove gape in awe. An example: To inflame his anti-antiwar “Silent Majority,” he provokes and spotlights antiwar hecklers. “We wanted some confrontation,” Bob Haldeman writes after protesters toss rocks at the President’s car, “[we] made a huge incident and we worked hard to crank it up, should make a really major story and might be effective.”

We are reminded how lawless Nixon and his administration were, how history did him a favor by tagging him with Watergate, a mere smattering of his lesser crimes-Al Capone’s tax fraud. It does not surprise us when Nixon instructs Haldeman to “break into the [Brookings Institution] … I want the … safe cleaned out .” Or when he orders illegal wiretaps on the home phones of columnists and suspected leakers. Or when, after the C.I.A. concludes that Chilean General René Schneider stands in the way of a military coup to overthrow Allende’s democratically elected Marxist government, Schneider is shot dead. Mr. Reeves documents a plethora of sinister examples that should, one hopes, shut up once and for all those apologists who insist that “Nixon did what they all do; he just got caught.”

But Richard Reeves’ Nixon is not simply evil; he is far more complex. We first meet him in January 1969, hours after he’s sworn in, asking for his dog-who, we soon learn, will only approach his master if led by a trail of biscuits. From there, Mr. Reeves tracks Nixon chronologically, focusing on patches of key days until April 1973, when the President is left thrashing about-helplessly, tragically-in the fatal net of his own making. Before the Watergate crescendo, we see Nixon parrying and thrusting with the Soviets, the Chinese, the Middle East tinderbox, the counterculture, the press, his Cabinet, Kennedys (dead and alive), Vietnam and Cambodia. His mind vacillates from paranoia to exhilaration, the trivial to the grand: One minute the President obsesses about where to fit his pool table, or how to secure the George Wallace vote without appearing overtly racist; the next he makes history in China. Domestic policy, to him, was “building outhouses in Peoria”; so long as the economy rolled by re-election time, he wished to be left to play geopolitical chess, alone or with the equally scheming Henry Kissinger. Somehow, on occasion, he’s able to conjure up, out of his petty madness, the imperial resolve needed to function, often deftly, on the world stage.

The story Mr. Reeves tells is ultimately one of withdrawal and isolation. Nixon cuts himself off from those he does not trust-most everybody. Haldeman keeps all but Mr. Kissinger from intruding on the king. The result is an American tragedy, and a personal one. In a last bid to save himself, Nixon demands the resignation of Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, tearfully saying, “This is like cutting off my arms”- and for once, we believe him. When Nixon’s house of lies crumbles around him (somehow the story retains suspense despite our knowing it), we can’t help but feel sympathy for the man. Perhaps that’s because the Nixon Mr. Reeves presents is a man, complex and multifaceted. We have never had more reason to despise him, but Mr. Reeves makes us feel compassion, too.

The book’s flaws are few and minor. Mr. Reeves asserts that Nixon “believed that one day there would almost certainly be” a global race war, but provides insufficient documentation for the claim. And although Mr. Reeves provides a gem when Nixon asks Henry Kissinger for a brief paragraph “on the reason we intervened [in Vietnam] in the first place”-and adds, amazingly, “Is it possible we were wrong from the start in Vietnam?”-it’s frustrating that we never hear Mr. Kissinger’s response, or even whether there was one.

In all, the book is masterfully constructed, and its numerous astonishing stories of Nixonian excess, pathos and spite paint a richly detailed portrait of this extraordinary man and his extraordinary times. Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House is required reading for anyone with an interest in our history or one of its most fascinating figures.

Jonathan Lowy is the author of the novel Elvis and Nixon (Crown) .