On getting to know our past presidents

Posted: Nov 05, 2001 12:00 AM
President Bush has signed an executive order that assigns to sitting presidents the authority to hold back the publication of papers belonging to antecedent presidents -- even those papers that past presidents would like to release. In matter-of-fact terms, this means, e.g., that if Bill Clinton wanted some of his papers published on his Mideast diplomacy and George W. wanted them kept quiet, George W. would prevail -- all of this in the interest of "orderly process."

There are hoots and hollers from academic lobbyists, while the laity mostly just look on; we are happy to get whatever we can get, because curiosity about presidential goings and comings is persistent, if voyeuristic.

And that brings up the remarkable new book by Richard Reeves, "President Nixon: Alone in the White House." The book attracts curiosity, even if it doesn't satisfy it -- can't satisfy it, inasmuch as Richard Nixon becomes progressively inscrutable. But Mr. Reeves, with his gift for candor and piquancy, takes advantage of the huge repository of material pertaining to Nixon's presidency.

For someone who yearned for privacy and spent untold hours communing with himself in a room in the Executive Office Building, there is no precedent for the comprehensiveness of Richard Nixon's self-ambush. (1) Nixon kept a journal, which survives. (2) The journal of his principal aide, H. R. Haldeman, is there, with day-by-day luridities. And (3), of course, there are the legendary tapes, which on Aug. 9, 1974, escorted him out of office with everything but an armed guard.

Dwell, for a moment, on Mr. Nixon the war leader, caught up in the dilemma of late April 1970. If he didn't do something to try to check the North Vietnamese coming into Cambodia, he foresaw a successful drive by the enemy overwhelming Cambodia and Laos: How would he answer his critics if that were to happen? On the other hand, American intervention in the burgeoning North Vietnamese operation meant triggering coast-to-coast caterwauling by the resistance class, from students on up through and including the retired establishment of the Johnson set who had got the U.S. ambivalently embarked in Vietnam in the first place.

Here is the kind of thing intimate access to presidential papers can do for a biographer:

We have the volatile Nixon: "The president was not smiling after the meeting. He called Kissinger into the Oval Office and shouted at him in almost uncontrolled rage."

Nixon the brooding general: "Nixon was spending a good deal of time alone or talking with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was playing (the role of Gen. George) Patton, or so it occasionally seemed to the few White House staffers who knew he (had been) watching the movie again. 'Americans have never lost a war and will never lose a war because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans' was a favorite "Patton" line. Now the president was pacing back and forth in the office and outside in the Rose Garden with his hands locked behind him, the same way actor George C. Scott did playing the general."

Nixon off duty, exercising grandiosity fueled by booze: "The president called again after watching 'Patton' once more. His words slurred together as he gave Kissinger orders -- with (Kissinger aide) Watts listening in on an extension. Finally Nixon said, 'Wait a minute. (Nixon intimate Bebe Rebozo) Bebe has something to say to you.'"

Bebe comes on the line. "'The president wants you to know if this (Cambodian maneuver) doesn't work, Henry -- it's your ass.'"

Nixon of grand manners: "Then (he) flew back to Washington on Marine One for an evening cruise on the presidential yacht, the Sequoia. Back at the White House by 8:30 that night, the president watched 'Patton' again."

Nixon the decision-maker: He is addressing the nation, giving his decision on Cambodia. "In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions that led to victory. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions that led to our victory. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions that could end the war. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision. It is customary to end a speech from the White House by asking support for the president. What I ask is far more important. I ask for your support for our brave men fighting tonight halfway around the world."

Nixon drawing exhilarated breath: "(Rose Mary) Woods, who had known Nixon for 20 years, thought she had never seen him so exhausted -- or so exuberant. After a couple of drinks, the president said to (Marine aide John Brennan) in a deliberately gruff voice: 'Do you approve of what I said last night?' "'It was one of the proudest moments of my life,' he answered."

Nixon acting out history: "When his yacht approached Mount Vernon, where naval vessels (passing by) always salute George Washington's tomb by playing the national anthem, the president ordered the captain: 'Really blast it out!' He stood at rigid attention there in the bow of the yacht, then he turned to the crew with a wide smile and shot his right thumb into the air.

"At five o'clock he helicoptered to Camp David and sat down to watch 'Patton' again."

Presidential portraits, warts and all.