With his baritone voice and conversational writing style, Mr. Reeves was a personable, erudite guide to American politics, both in print and on television. He co-hosted the NBC magazine show “Sunday” in the 1970s, was chief correspondent for the PBS program “Frontline” and won honors including Peabody and Emmy awards, for documentaries on the Soviet war in Afghanistan and TV’s impact on politics.
Reviewing his 1977 book “Convention,” a colorful account of the previous year’s Democratic National Convention in New York, cultural critic John Leonard called Mr. Reeves “one of our smartest political reporters and analysts, a man who fairly bristles with opinions, a porcupine among parrots and trained seals.”
A former chief political correspondent for the New York Times, he wrote a twice-weekly column that appeared in more than 160 newspapers across the country; contributed to magazines including New York and Esquire; and wrote more than a dozen books, ranging from a 1997 account of his family’s globe-trotting vacation (“Family Travels”) to a 2007 biography of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford (“A Force of Nature”), who conducted experiments at Mr. Reeves’s alma mater.
Mr. Reeves studied engineering, not journalism, and was working for the manufacturer Ingersoll-Rand in New Jersey when he began a double life as a journalist. On a lark, he and a few friends started a newspaper, the Phillipsburg Free Press, with Mr. Reeves serving as the editor by night, investigating local politicians and presiding over the paper’s headquarters — a converted movie theater big enough to house an old printing press.
He was soon covering local affairs for the Newark News, New Jersey state politics for the New York Herald Tribune and New York’s City Hall for the Times, which also sent him to the Woodstock music festival in 1969 and later dispatched him to Washington.
Mr. Reeves “was a bit of a renaissance guy, with a deep sense of philosophy, literature and history,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian who has written on the Ford and Reagan presidencies. “He had a gumshoe reporter’s drive mixed with an armchair-bound scholar’s sense of deep reading. Not all people that write books are intellectuals, and Richard Reeves was one.”
“Reeves wrote with narrative flair, which came out of a deep dive into great novels,” Brinkley added. “He was one of those literary biographers who had journalistic scruples to get every fact right. Anything Richard Reeves ever wrote was eminently footnotable.”
Mr. Reeves began writing books with “A Ford, Not a Lincoln” (1975), a deeply critical account of Gerald R. Ford’s presidency. Like many Americans, Mr. Reeves had disagreed with Ford’s decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon — an act of clemency that Ford said was essential to keeping the country moving forward.
“Since then, having lived through, say, O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky, I realized that Ford was right,” Mr. Reeves told NPR in 2006. He wrote a cover story for American Heritage titled “I’m Sorry, Mr. President,” and said that Ford deserved more credit for his time in the White House, including for championing the Helsinki Accords, a far-reaching agreement between Western nations and the Soviet bloc.
“Ford wrote to me, called me and we communicated back and forth over the years,” Mr. Reeves told NPR. “And he said in public, well, he thought I had always been fair. I’m not sure I was.”
Most critics seemed to disagree with Mr. Reeves’s self-assessment. He was widely praised for a trilogy of White House histories that aimed to show the presidency “as it looked from the center,” using dialogue and narrative detail to document a few key hours, days or weeks in the Oval Office.
In addition to “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” (1993), he wrote “President Nixon: Alone in the White House” (2001) and “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination” (2005). “Presidents are magic,” Mr. Reeves told the Times in a 2011 interview about Kennedy’s legacy. “They walk into a room, and the air changes, and this one, in our lifetimes, above all.”
As part of his reporting process, he typically conducted hundreds of interviews and pored over thousands of pages of archival materials, including Nixon’s legal-pad musings, which included affirmations such as “need to be good to do good” and “guts to stand alone.”
Mr. Reeves was critical of President Bill Clinton, whose first term he chronicled in the 1996 book “Running in Place,” and directed scathing commentary toward President George W. Bush, the target of an October 2004 column headlined, “To Begin With, the President Is a Fool.”
He had voted for the Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kerry, “because I have children and grandchildren, too, and I love my country too much to watch George W. Bush try to figure it out for four more years,” he wrote.
“Biased? Of course. That’s why I write this column: to share my bias. I am always amazed when I get letters, many of them, accusing me of being a ‘liberal’ or, a lot worse, an ‘elitist.’ Yes, I am. Hello!”
“I also think that being president of the United States is an elite job,” he continued. “Don’t you? What are we talking about here?”
The older of two children, Richard Furman Reeves was born in Manhattan on Nov. 28, 1936, and raised in Jersey City. His father was a county judge, his mother a bank teller.
Mr. Reeves studied engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., where he wrote a column — “Have Pen, Will Write” — for the student newspaper. “Journalism is so attractive,” he told the Boston Globe in 2001, “because it’s the one field where you don’t need any qualifications.”
He joined the Times in 1966, remained at the paper for a decade and wrote his column from 1979 to 2014. “It makes me focus,” he told the Globe. “If you’re to write two columns a week, you’ve got to pay attention. I think there’s a part of me that fears if I didn’t pay attention that way, I would drop into history.”
Mr. Reeves’s books included “American Journey” (1982), in which he spent five years re-creating the travels of Alexis de Tocqueville; “Passage to Peshawar” (1984), about his journeys through Pakistan; and “Daring Young Men” (2010), a history of the Berlin airlift.
His latest, “Infamy” (2015), was a sweeping history of Japanese American internment during World War II, when some 120,000 people were forced into “war relocation camps.” Mr. Reeves chronicled the role of politicians such as Earl Warren, the future chief justice of the United States, in backing the internment policy, in addition to anti-Japanese rhetoric inflamed by figures ranging from journalist Edward R. Murrow to artist Theodor Geisel, later known as Dr. Seuss.
Mr. Reeves’s marriage to Carol Wiegand ended in divorce, and in 1979 he married Catherine O’Neill, who ran for the California State Senate as a Democrat and later co-founded the Women’s Refugee Commission. She died in 2012.
In addition to his son, Jeffrey, of Los Angeles, survivors include another child from his first marriage, Cynthia Fyfe of Royal Palm Beach, Fla.; a daughter from his second marriage, Fiona Reeves of Washington; two stepsons, Colin and Conor O’Neill, both of Los Angeles; a brother; and seven grandchildren.
Although Mr. Reeves spent much of his life covering politics, he said he was chastened by his wife’s unsuccessful run for the state Senate in 1992. “From my new perspective, as candidate consort, the business of running has rubbery rules and a lot of desperate practitioners, more like addicts than professionals,” he wrote in a Los Angeles Times essay.
The campaign trail offered a few unhappy lessons, he added. Among the most discouraging:
●“ ‘Buying a seat’ is not a political charge, it’s our political system.”
●“Campaign strategy is simple: Create an opponent, who may or may not resemble people living or dead, and run against that creation.”
●“Lying has become acceptable in America, even admired if done well.”
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