Photo of Richard Reeves
Richard Reeves.
Photo courtesy of USC Annenberg

In memoriam: Richard Reeves, 83

Richard Reeves, a renowned longtime faculty member at USC Annenberg and one of the country’s premier chroniclers of the Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan presidencies, has died at the age of 83. A prolific political journalist for The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Esquire, Reeves wrote one of the most seminal works on John F. Kennedy, President Kennedy: Profile of Power, which was chosen by Time magazine as the Best Non-Fiction Book of 1993.

Reeves died on March 25 from cardiac arrest at his home in Los Angeles after battling cancer.

“Richard was not only a legend in the field of journalism, he was our beloved colleague, friend, teacher and mentor,” said Willow Bay, USC Annenberg dean. “He was a master of his craft and took every opportunity to help his students grow as writers and, more importantly, as people.”

His son, Jeffrey Reeves, said his father’s first desire while he was sick was to get back to teaching at USC Annenberg.

“My dad missed teaching incredibly,” Jeffrey Reeves said. “I know he had a deep affection for the university and his students, and was so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that family.”

Geoffrey Cowan, University Professor and Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership, lauded Reeves as one of the most important and insightful political reporters of the past 50 years.

“He looked at people and events with a combination of honesty, humor and historical depth,” Cowan said.

A graduate of the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, Reeves worked briefly as an engineer before becoming a journalist. A former chief political correspondent at The New York Times, Reeves also served as an editor and columnist for New York Magazine and Esquire. He was named the Regents Professor of Political Science at UCLA in 1992, and also taught political writing at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Mary Murphy, associate professor of professional practice, was friends with Reeves for more than 30 years. She introduced Reeves to his future wife, Murphy’s best friend Catherine O’Neill, at a Los Angeles party hosted by Esquire magazine, where Murphy and Reeves both worked at the time. 

“Richard was a true gentleman, one of the kindest people you’d ever meet, and always helpful to colleagues and students,” Murphy said. “He was a brilliant political historian and a fabulous narrative journalist. I was a guest lecturer sometimes in his classes, and his students were devoted to him because of his ability to teach them how to shape a story.”

Reeves first came to USC Annenberg as a visiting professor in 1998. He then served for the next two years as a lecturer and Nate Monaster Writer-in-Residence. From 2001–06, he continued as a lecturer, before becoming a full-time senior lecturer in Fall 2006.

“When I grew up in New York City and played a small role in politics in the late ’60s, Dick Reeves was the chief political reporter for The New York Times, and was one of the most important journalists in the country,” said Cowan, who was USC Annenberg’s dean at the time Reeves was hired full-time. “When I helped bring him to USC, I felt like a member of the front office of a ball team who had brought in a truly prized recruit who elevated everyone’s game. He was fun, funny, generous, and a great teacher. He brought his firsthand knowledge of politics and political reporting into the classroom, inspiring generations of students.”

Michael Parks, professor of journalism, was director of the School of Journalism when Reeves joined the faculty full-time. “Richard had a quality in his journalism that said something to potential students and the world about the quality of journalism USC Annenberg espouses: factual, accurate, truthful, fair, and compassionate,” Parks said. “He was a treasure for the school and a treasure for the world of journalism.”

In addition to his influential and often controversial twice-weekly opinion columns, which appeared for some two decades in more than 160 newspapers in the United States, including the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun, Reeves was also well known for his numerous, highly acclaimed books on politics. His other best-selling books include Convention (1977) and American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America (1982). 

Some of Reeves’ most recent books were Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II (2015), Portrait of Camelot: A Thousand Days in the Kennedy White House (2010), Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of The Berlin Airlift-June 1948-May 1949 (2010), A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford (2007), President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (2006), and President Nixon: Alone in the White House (2001).

He was the 1998 recipient of the American Political Science Association’s Carey McWilliams Award for his significant contributions to the understanding of American politics.

Reeves also made six television films and won all of television’s major documentary awards: the Emmy for Lights, Camera... Politics! for ABC News; the Columbia-DuPont Award for Struggle for Birmingham for PBS; and the George Foster Peabody Award for Red Star Over Khyber for PBS. He was the co-host of NBC magazine show Sunday from 1971 to 1976.

“My dad was certainly known and respected wherever I went,” Jeffrey Reeves said. “When they knew that my father Richard Reeves, people always seemed immediately comforted by that fact. I think that’s because, for so long, he wrote in a way that connected with people. He was an important force in journalism — and a great father on top of that. Reeves was the whole package.”

Reeves’ wife Catherine O’Neill died in 2012. He is survived by his son Jeffrey Reeves, his daughters Cynthia Fyfe and Fiona Reeves, and his stepsons Conor and Colin O’Neill.

Additional memorial tributes to Reeves have been published in The New York Times and The Washington Post.