By Marty Finley
To most Americans, Richard Nixon’s name is forever entwined with the Watergate scandal and his eventual fall from grace and resignation from the presidency of the United States. Biographer Richard Reeves discussed Tuesday in the library’s reading room how Nixon’s introverted nature led to his secretive affairs and forced him to use denial and deception to keep people at bay.
This was just one perspective presented by Reeves, who has written a trilogy of biographies highlighting the character traits and flaws of three of America’s former leaders: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
Much of Reeves’ speech was centered on President Kennedy, whom he referred to as a “towering cultural figure.”
“Culturally, Kennedy will continue on and on,” Reeves said.
Reeves said much of America merely focuses on his accomplishments and his cultural successes, but rarely look at the situations he lived with.
Reeves said Kennedy was the first self-selected president who longed for the position throughout life. Kennedy seemed to know he would suffer an early fate, and dealt with sickness his entire life, Reeves said.
He also dealt with several foreign issues. The Cold War and problems with Vietnam were starting to rise during his presidency.
Reeves credited Kennedy for starting problems in Vietnam because he called for the president of South Vietnam to be deposed. He was eventually deposed and killed, something Reeves said Kennedy never expected or planned. When this happened, Vietnam became America’s problem, Reeves said.
“We broke it. We owned it,” he said.
Reeves said Nixon was the antithesis of Kennedy because he avoided people, and he even refused to have steak dinners in the White House for months after elected.
After finally having a dinner, he told his staff the soup course had to be removed to shorten the dinners. The staff found out he had spilled soup on him, but he simply replied, “Real men don’t eat soup,” according to Reeves.
Reeves said once presidents left office, the entire White House was changed for the incoming president. He said it was similar to stepping into an empty refrigerator.
But three of Nixon’s desks were cleaned out and the contents were put into storage, never to be seen again. Reeves said he found those boxes and got the chance to look at the contents, which were page after page of yellow paper. On these papers, Nixon expressed inspirational thoughts. He said they were the thoughts of a man who wanted to be something completely different.
On the other hand, Reeves said Reagan didn’t “give a damn” what critics thought of him. He said Reagan was a man who had a fixed set of ideals and didn’t get caught up in the details of situations, which made him appear bumbling and clueless at times.
Reeves said he wrote about Reagan because he wanted to research his presidency from a more liberal point of view. He said he thought it was vital because most people writing about him were his staff, he said.
Reagan also didn’t communicate with his staff during his presidency, using a quote from James Baker, Reagan’s chief of staff, as proof.
“He’s very democratic,” Baker said. “He treats us all the same: as hired help.”
Reeves criticized Reagan for “dumbing down” America by blurring elements of fiction into facts. He said it is a chief reason why people are confused when it comes to the war in Iraq and the political landscape.
But he said Reagan’s principles still remain today and, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, made a mark on American society.
“He realized the presidency was not about running the government; the presidency was about leading the nation.”
Jonathan Leger, a senior marketing major, said Reeves impressed him.
“It was very interesting, just his knowledge of the subject,” he said.
Will Hatten, a junior history major, agreed.
“To look back at the recent presidents and get some of the different accounts not previously (offered), that was very interesting.” Reeves finished with a quote, calling out those who considered Reagan an old, bumbling fool.
“He may have been bumbling and he may have been old,” Reeves said. “But he was no fool.