Age and intellectual maturity may have replaced that impulse in at least some of us, as time brought more of the man's accomplishments (opening China and early support for civil rights, for example) to the forefront – along with the realization that, with Watergate and a presidential resignation, there perhaps had been twisting enough for even the strongest appetite.
Little did we know how much twisting in the political winds Richard Milhous Nixon had already done, long before his eventual ascent to the presidency. Jeffrey Frank, a former senior editor at both the New Yorker and the Washington Post, means to set that straight.
And he does, in this interesting and well-crafted book about Nixon's relationship with the mid-20th century giant of Republican politics, Dwight D. Eisenhower. And it is very much that – a book about Nixon, not Eisenhower. The “strange political marriage” is told from Nixon's perspective, and while there are insights into Eisenhower – especially in his later years – they come as embellishments on the theme of Ike's impacts on Nixon, with very little consideration of any Nixon impact on Ike.
There's nothing especially wrong with that. As Frank himself notes, Eisenhower has already been subjected to a tide of revisionism that reconsiders history's initial assessment of the World War II hero par excellence as a semi-detached, golf-playing and apolitical president. Some of that actually started with Nixon himself, who famously stated, in his book “Six Crises,” that Eisenhower was “a far more complex and devious man than most people realized.”
As an example of what Frank does best in this book – peeling back layers of the onion to get at the core of an incident or issue – he notes that that oft-repeated quote had its own history. It started with Nixon, the target of many devious Eisenhower ploys, telling a co-writer of his book that “Eisenhower was one of the most devious men I've ever met.” Worried about offending Ike, whose approval Nixon perpetually sought but never quite won, he softened that in print to the longer, “he was a far more complex and devious man than most people realized, and in the best sense of those words.”
I'm still trying to puzzle out what the best sense of “devious” might be, but the anecdote – like almost all of those chosen carefully by Frank – is deeply revealing. It portrays an insecure and tortured man, worried about offending the source of much of his torture.
This book should not be read as an indictment of Eisenhower as torturer, however. Much of the torture stemmed from a basic mismatch of the round-hole, square-peg variety. Eisenhower disliked politics and politicians; once his well-earned wartime reputation as an American hero and super-patriot thrust him into a presidential nomination and new roles as both the nation's chief politician and head of the Republican Party, he faced the challenge of adapting to a new career – and, in this telling, largely ducked it.
Most presidents are comfortable in the domestic politics part of their jobs, and uneasy about the “commander-in-chief” part. Eisenhower was the opposite. And when the pressure from men he admired – business and industrial leaders, not politicians – pushed him into the GOP nomination for the 1952 presidential elections, his newly acquired political advisers chose for him an ultra-political operative in younger Dick Nixon, a man he barely knew.
Frank's exploration of the relationship is deeply researched, through extensive reading and interviews with some 70 people who were involved in the political scene of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidential years. It's also well-written, a straightforward narrative that moves steadily through time on a story arc that's studded with insider perspectives and with intimate and sometimes excruciating anecdotes.
How you will view this book depends to some degree on what lens you use – historian, political junkie or casual reader. There's enough here for each category – whether you're concerned with Nixon's nomination as Ike's vice president and what that meant to the mid-20th century, or in the machinations that led up to that nomination and subsequent attempts to dump him, or just in the vignette of Pat Nixon, with her “good Republican cloth coat” that Nixon often mentioned inadequate to a cold outdoor campaign rally's rigors, sharing Mamie Eisenhower's fur wrap.
There are glimpses here of a young Richard Nixon with his “spatulate” nose pressed against the glass of a 30th-floor Manhattan office building while straining to see a triumphant Gen. Eisenhower through showers of shredded paper during a conquering-hero parade just after V-E Day, and of Nixon with nose pressed against the glass as Ike invited cronies and insiders – but never Nixon – inside his Gettysburg farmhouse or the living quarters of the White House.
Frank depicts a Nixon who redefined the role of vice president, through extensive travels and well-researched and lawyerly-delivered opinions on key issues, and made it meaningful. And he depicts a loyal vice president who routinely was assigned the dirty work – like firing top aides – that Eisenhower would not do himself. Above all, this is a psychological portrait of a driven but tortured mind, a man who desperately wanted Ike's approval but got only vague semi-endorsements, weak political backing and occasional snubs, intended or unintended.
The most telling snub of all came when Ike told reporters who had asked for a specific contribution Nixon had made to his administration that “if you give me a week I might think of one.” Eisenhower later contended that that much-quoted jibe was just a joke to close a press conference, but it came just before voters had to choose between Nixon and John F. Kennedy as Ike's successor. Nixon lost that 1960 election by just 118,000 votes.
Because this is an exploration of the relationship between the two men – Frank at one point sums up his findings with a memorable line that “it was like an awkward dance in which the music keeps playing and the partners keep bruising one another's toes” – the emphasis is not on Nixon's presidency. The Watergate affair, for example, gets only passing mention while the “Checkers” speech at the beginning of the 1952 campaign merits a deeper look both as Nixon's bid for political survival and his first test of survival on an Eisenhower ticket (Ike tried to ease him off the 1956 re-election ticket, too). And Nixon's pleas for strong support from an increasingly fragile and irrelevant former president for his own campaigns in 1960 and 1968 are poignant.
Near the end of his life, Ike even objected to the engagement and marriage of Julie Nixon, Richard's daughter, and his own grandson, David Eisenhower. But that passed, and something like genuine friendship emerged – but never really blossomed – between the two men.
Nixon cried when the general died.
Frank tells this story well, with a unique focus on the political dance that partnered two very different men, helped shape the nation in mid-century and resonated within the Republican Party for decades. It's an interesting read – and an instructive one.
Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage
By Jeffrey Frank
Simon & Schuster
434 pages, $30
Mike Vogel is the retired editor of the Buffalo News Editorial Page.