'Ike and Dick': Jeffrey Frank explores the 'Strange Political Marriage' of Eisenhower and Nixon
Those who find Barack Obama and Joe Biden an oddly matched political pair should consider the team of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. In 1952, the Republicans sought to balance the gravitas of America's most revered military hero with the scrappy energy of a 39-year-old California senator known for his zealous anticommunism. Eisenhower ("Ike") and Nixon ("Dick") went on to win the election, beginning a complex and often uncomfortable relationship that lasted until the former's death 17 years later. Jeffrey Frank's book traces their combined stories with a feel for pathos as well as political intrigue.
"IKE AND DICK: PORTRAIT OF A STRANGE POLITICAL MARRIAGE"
By Jeffrey Frank
Simon & Schuster ($30).
Though Ike gets the top billing, the other end of the ticket is the book's true focus. Nixon's ongoing effort to win the confidence and respect of Eisenhower forms the narrative thread of the tale. Drawing upon his own interviews as well as archival and published material, the author paints a portrait of a needy, insatiably ambitious politician constantly tugging at the sleeve of a distant father figure who never quite accepts him.
Mr. Frank points out that both Ike and Nixon came from modest circumstances; both had quick-tempered fathers and deeply religious mothers. Beyond their beginnings, though, were striking differences -- Eisenhower was a likable extrovert who surrounded himself with rich businessmen, while Nixon was a chronic loner who nursed resentments that only grew with time. Although Ike was willing to take Nixon as his running mate in 1952, he looked down upon him for the very political skills he brought to the ticket.
For his part, Nixon learned early on that he couldn't trust Ike to stand behind him when things got rough. When Nixon was accused of benefiting from a "secret fund" during the 1952 campaign, he had to face down calls for him to leave the race on his own. Even after Nixon successfully appealed for public support on television with his famous "Checkers Speech," Ike took his time to give his support. As Mr. Frank puts it, Nixon had to humble himself before "this forbidding figure with the amazing blue eyes to whom [Nixon] owed everything and owed him nothing in return."
The evasions and slights continued after the GOP ticket won in November. Eisenhower recognized his vice president's sharp intelligence and analytic powers, but never took him into his inner circle. He gave the dirty jobs to Nixon, like taking on Sen. Joe McCarthy or branding Democratic candidates as soft on communism. Nixon pioneered the role of the VP as attack dog, allowing Ike to maintain the easygoing image of a president who enjoyed the golf links more than the corridors of power.
The mistrust that simmered between the two men boiled over after Ike suffered a heart attack in September 1955. The president was uneasy at having the VP help run things while he recuperated. Pundits thought it unlikely that Ike would seek re-election -- when he decided to do so, he was lukewarm (at best) about running with Nixon again. Despite behind-the-scenes efforts to dump him, Nixon ended up on the ticket, demonstrating what Mr. Frank calls an "almost spooky capacity for resilience."
As the 1960 election approached, Eisenhower refused to indicate Nixon as his chosen successor. The president grew tired of his VP's "hypersensitivity." When asked about Nixon's contributions to his administration, he told a reporter, "If you give me a week, I might think of one."
After losing the presidency to John F. Kennedy, Nixon retreated to private life, then unsuccessfully ran for the California governorship. This might've ended his political career -- and his troubled relationship with Ike. Amazingly, both continued.
Ike and Nixon grew somewhat closer (or at least more sociable) in the 1960s. The fact that his grandson David was dating Dick's daughter Julie (initially without his approval) helped to cement their bond. As Nixon geared up for his second try for president in 1968, he sought Ike's counsel and public support. The book's chapters dealing with Nixon's election and Eisenhower's decline and death are among its most revealing. If all the issues between Ike and Nixon weren't resolved with the latter's death in March 1969, Frank does suggest a degree of mutual respect was achieved at last.
Nixon said that Eisenhower's greatness was "derived not from his office, but from his character." No matter what he did, Nixon could not win this kind of affection from the American people. Ike could be cold, remote and duplicitous to those under him without compromising his lovable image. Nixon was fated to remain Tricky Dick, the slippery pol who eventually succumbed to his own paranoia and resigned the presidency in disgrace.
Jeffrey Frank sorts through these layers of angst and irony with a skillful hand and a sense of empathy for the troubled man at his book's center.
First Published February 17, 2013 12:00 am