Richard Reeves, a journalist and author who explored the presidency, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World II, the role of the media and other aspects of American history in muscular, passionate and occasionally acerbic prose, died on Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 83.
His son, Jeffrey, said the cause was cardiac arrest. Mr. Reeves had been treated for cancer.
Mr. Reeves, who was a lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, wrote more than a dozen books and, from 1979 to 2014, a syndicated column that appeared in more than 100 newspapers. He was also a familiar face on public affairs programs on PBS.
As an author, Mr. Reeves was in particular an insightful and unsparing student of the American presidency, producing well-received portraits of John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
His most recent book, “Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II,” was published in 2015. In the book, Mr. Reeves accused two Army officers stationed on the West Coast, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt and Col. Karl Bendetsen — “both bigots, the former a fool, the latter a brilliant pathological liar” — of wildly exaggerating dangers posed by Japanese-Americans there.
Another villain, in his view, was Earl Warren, California’s attorney general (and later the chief justice of the United States), who was elected governor of the state in 1942 on a wave of anti-Japanese prejudice. Mr. Reeves also had harsh words for the press, accusing it of being complacent about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order that authorized the internment if not complicit in it.
Among recent presidents, Mr. Reeves rated Barack Obama fairly high. “No president since 1945 has been dealt such a difficult hand,” he asserted in a 2014 column, citing “the worst financial crisis since the 1930s” and “the legacy of George W. Bush’s disastrous, unnecessary war in Iraq.”
In columns written while Mr. Bush was in the White House, Mr. Reeves ranked him among the worst presidents, in a class with James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding and Richard M. Nixon. (Mr. Reeves was not much kinder to Senator John F. Kerry, Mr. Bush’s Democratic challenger in 2004, likening him to a student who got straight A’s not as a result of intellectual rigor but by parroting his teachers.)
In “Running in Place: How Bill Clinton Disappointed America,” published in 1996, Mr. Reeves called the 42nd president “the most gifted politician of his generation.” But he thought Mr. Clinton had undermined himself by choosing an inexperienced and arrogant staff, thinking out loud too often and, later, causing the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In 1998, Mr. Reeves wrote, “Clinton should have been a giant, but he looks smaller and smaller every day, dying or bleeding from a thousand cuts.”
Reagan, while no intellectual, was nonetheless a man of big ideas, Mr. Reeves argued in his book “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination,” published in 2006.
At a Washington bookstore appearance that year, the author said that Reagan deserved credit for helping to win the Cold War, but he added that “he made us pay a very, very high price for his triumphs” by neglecting some domestic issues and by creating “a new populism” in which government was the enemy.
Mr. Reeves considered Nixon temperamentally unsuited for politics at any level, as he wrote in his 2001 book, “President Nixon: Alone in the White House.”
“The power and opportunity of the presidency sometimes brought out the best in him, but it brought out more of the worst because he trusted almost no one,” Mr. Reeves wrote. “He assumed the worst in people, and he brought out the worst in them.”
Yet, as Mr. Reeves acknowledged in an interview for this obituary in 2017, he voted for Nixon when he ran against Kennedy in 1960, before his own politics had moved “left more than a tad.” He was a Democratic-leaning independent for a time, he said, and became a Democrat when his wife, Catherine O’Neill, ran unsuccessfully for the California State Senate in the 1970s. (Ms. O’Neill, a co-founder of the Women’s Refugee Commission, an advocacy group for displaced women and families, died in 2012.)
Mr. Reeves found much to criticize in Kennedy, not least Kennedy’s decision to dip the American toe into the Vietnam quagmire, and much to admire, like his summoning of young Americans to public service. And Mr. Reeves understood the charisma that transformed Kennedy from man to martyr to myth.
“It was almost as if those around him were figures in tableaux, who came alive only when John Kennedy was in place at the center,” he wrote in “President Kennedy: Profile of Power,” a book, published in 1993, that many consider his best. “He was an artist who painted with other people’s lives. He squeezed people like tubes of paint, gently or brutally, and the people around him — family, writers, drivers, ladies-in-waiting — were the indentured inhabitants serving his needs and desires.”
Richard Furman Reeves was born in New York City on Nov. 28, 1936, and grew up in Jersey City. His father, Furman W. Reeves, a Republican, was a judge in Hudson County, N.J.; his mother, Dorothy (Forshay) Reeves, had been an actress in early movies.
Mr. Reeves earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and worked for Ingersoll Rand in 1960 and 1961. Realizing that engineering was not for him, he left the company to help found and edit The Phillipsburg Free Press, a weekly paper in Warren County, N.J. (It was later absorbed by another newspaper.)
In the 1960s and early ’70s, Mr. Reeves was a reporter for The Newark Evening News, The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times, where his career took off as he covered everything from politics to riots to the Woodstock music festival.
Later, he wrote for Esquire and New York magazine, producing a number of cover-story profiles. On PBS, he appeared as a regular panelist on public-affairs programs in the 1970s and was chief correspondent for the investigative documentary series “Frontline” from 1981 to 1984. His work, in print and on television, won numerous awards.
Mr. Reeves’s first marriage, to Carol Wiegand, ended in divorce.
In addition to his son, Jeffrey, Mr. Reeves is survived by two daughters, Cynthia Fyfe and Fiona Reeves; two stepsons, Colin and Conor O’Neill; four grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren. Jeffrey Reeves said his father would be buried in Sag Harbor, N.Y., on Long Island.
As judgmental as he could be, Mr. Reeves understood that people in power sometimes do things they regret. “History is written backwards,” he once said, “and it tends to clean up the mess.”
In “Infamy,” Mr. Reeves wrote that he had no doubt that Chief Justice Warren’s striving for social equality, exemplified by his leadership in achieving the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing public-school segregation, was motivated in part by remorse over his conduct during World War II.
Mr. Reeves confessed to some regrets of his own. In his first book, “A Ford, Not a Lincoln” (1975), he described Gerald R. Ford as an accidental president out of his depth and rejected Ford’s rationale for pardoning Nixon: that putting the disgraced former president on trial over the Watergate scandals would have consumed the American people and left the country ungovernable for a time.
Two decades later, Mr. Reeves had changed his mind, concluding that, whatever his mistakes, Ford had been right about the biggest decision of his presidency.
“Politicians and reporters continue to poison the wells of democratic faith and our political dialogue,” he wrote in American Heritage magazine in late 1996. “I wish I had not been part of the problem, and perhaps I will find a way to be part of the solution. I’ll begin by saying to Gerald Ford that I know he did his best and did what he thought he had to do. You have my respect and thanks, Mr. President.”
David Stout, a former editor and reporter for The Times, wrote this obituary in 2017. He died in February. Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.