Political historian-commentator Richard Reeves dies at 83

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NEW YORK — Richard Reeves, a political columnist, journalist and author known for his in-depth examinations of the presidency and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, has died at his home in Los Angeles at age 83.

Reeves, who had cancer, died Wednesday of cardiac arrest, according to USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he was a senior lecturer of journalism.

His former colleagues at the Annenberg School praised Reeves for his insightful political commentary and his ability to discuss the major events of the 20th century as someone who’d witnessed history unfold firsthand.

“It was just kind of always jaw-dropping when you could turn to him and ask him something and he would basically have been on the scene in so many of these situations,” said Gabriel Kahn, a USC Annenberg professor who co-taught a history of journalism class with Reeves.

Kahn said he once asked Reeves if he’d ever seen Jackie Robinson play baseball. He had, when Robinson was in the minor leagues.

“He just seemed to always be there and always have something he could draw on to make it all so real,” Kahn said. “I came to understand that he had just lived this remarkable life that had put him in direct contact with so many presidents, with so many decision-makers and so many crucial moments of history.”

Reeves wrote more than a dozen books, including “President Kennedy: Profile of Power,” “President Nixon: Alone in the White House,” and his first book “A Ford, Not a Lincoln,” on President Gerald Ford. He also wrote a syndicated column between 1979 and 2014 that ran in more than 100 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.

On the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Reeves described the former president as a “compartmentalized man with much to hide, comfortable with secrets and lies,” who had his share of “historic achievements” and “disasters” in a column.

“Kennedy probably doesn’t belong on a list of the top five presidents. But I would put him near the top of the next list,” Reeves wrote. “Although he served less than three years, he was the most important man in the world at a critical time, the man in charge at a hinge-point in national and world politics, diplomacy and war — at home and abroad.”

Reeves said he wrote his 2015 book “Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II” to help prevent history from repeating itself.

“I knew enough about the internment — concentration camps for 120,000 American Japanese in World War II — and I wanted to do my bit to make sure that never happens again,” Reeves told Annenberg Radio News in 2015.

Reeves was born Nov. 28, 1936, in New York City and grew up in Jersey City. He studied mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology and worked briefly worked as an engineer, before switching to journalism.

At age 23, he founded the Phillipsburg Free Press, then continued his career at the Newark Evening News, the New York Herald Tribune, and the New York Times, where he served as chief political correspondent. From The New York Times, he went on to be a columnist and editor at Esquire and New York Magazine.

He was also comfortable on screen. He won an Emmy in 1980 for “Lights, Camera … Politics!” an ABC News documentary, and was the chief correspondent for “Frontline,” the PBS investigative series, from 1981-84.

Reeves is survived by three children, two stepchildren and seven grandchildren.

Outside of politics, Reeves spent six years writing a column for Travel & Leisure magazine from Europe. In 1997, he published “Family Travels: Around the World in Thirty Days,” chronicling a trip he took with his wife, the late Catherine O’Neill, and their children around the world.

“More than anything,” Reeves wrote, “we wanted to create or nurture this little circle of people born 25 years apart to hold together and look inward to each other when we are no longer cajoling and nagging at the center.”


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