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A Very Wretched Relationship

Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon, New York City, 1957

As a greenhorn in the White House press corps in 1954, one of the first rules I learned was not to speak truth to strangers about the president’s smile. That smile, so warm, so irresistibly friendly, was part of the genial image that made Dwight Eisenhower a figure admired, in some sense beloved, by millions who knew him only from wartime newspaper photographs and an occasional newsreel shot. The smile made it easy to call him “Ike,” as millions did in those years, and being called “Ike” made him seem like a familiar American folk hero: the “regular guy” who walked with kings but kept the common touch—in the present-day cliché, a man you’d like to have a beer with.

Sixty years ago, Americans still believed that heroes were possible, and Eisenhower fitted the heroic outline. He had led the Western allies to victory in World War II, and, unlike crustier celebrity generals such as Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, he was easy for the masses to like, and like him they did, electing and reelecting him to the presidency with large majorities. Irving Berlin, who had already given the nation “God Bless America” and “White Christmas,” wrote his campaign song, titled, of course, “I Like Ike.” Campaigning, he rode through city streets in an open car waving and smiling at cheering thousands. From the press bus five or six vehicles behind his, one looked at the crowds that had just watched him pass and saw a sea of blissfully happy faces, all care washed briefly away.

The truth best left unspoken was that the smile was a deceptive indicator of Eisenhower’s nature. Reporters traveling with the president were often sought out by people from the crowd eager for eyewitness testimony to Eisenhower’s warmth and geniality. One soon learned not to explain that the president was, after all, a general, and one, moreover, who was most comfortable in the company of rich corporate executives, and anything but a regular guy likely to have a beer with them. A report in this vein was apt to be rejected, perhaps with an insult to the reporter’s honesty; such was the passion with which the public embraced its innocent vision of Eisenhower in the early 1950s.

Journalists were not alone in finding Eisenhower far more complicated than the irresistibly likable “Ike.” As Richard Nixon was quick to learn, “Ike” was not at all easy to like, but sometimes easy to despise. Nixon seems never to have believed in the sweet-tempered chummy “Ike” the public adored. Jeffrey Frank’s Ike and Dick, a highly entertaining history of the wretched seventeen-year relationship between these two difficult men, states that Nixon never called him “Ike.” He did once call him a “goddamned old fool,” not to his face, of course, but in angry conversation with the Republican Party chairman, Leonard Hall.

In this instance Nixon was provoked by what he took to be Eisenhower’s hopeless ignorance of practical politics, an art at which Nixon always considered himself a master. (Never mind his long record of political defeats and catastrophes.) Eisenhower seemed to share the traditional American distrust of “politics” and cultivated the impression that he was above such rascality. Nixon’s absorption in it was obviously one reason for Eisenhower’s aloofness.

“What kind of man is he? Doesn’t he think of anything but politics?” Eisenhower asked Leonard Hall. On that occasion Nixon had produced a flurry of angry newspaper criticism by claiming that the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a Republican triumph produced by “a great Republican Chief Justice, Earl Warren.” By that time, 1956, Eisenhower had begun to regret appointing Warren to the Court and was anything but eager to champion the black civil rights movement—“a little squeamish when it came to civil rights,” as Frank puts it. Especially about the school desegregation ruling.

“I think that no other single event has so disturbed the domestic scene in many years,” he wrote his childhood friend Swede Hazlett in 1957. Nixon, by contrast, had become so sympathetic toward the movement that Martin Luther King told an interviewer he thought “Nixon would have done much more to meet the present crisis in race relations than President Eisenhower has done.”

Here was another illustration of why Nixon and Eisenhower were such a mismatch: Eisenhower, born in the nineteenth century, became a caretaker of the pre-war generation’s values and culture; politicians of the Nixon-Kennedy age group were likely to take a more critical view of the postwar world, readier to put the old aside and explore the new. Typically, Eisenhower deplored the inevitable changes in racial relations and saw the oncoming space age as mostly a threat to a balanced budget. Politicians of the Kennedy-Nixon generation saw it as a thrilling venture into a Buck Rogers future filled with unforeseeable possibilities, and well worth whatever it cost.

Jeffrey Frank has written novels and worked as an editor for The New Yorker and The Washington Post, and Ike and Dick is an elegant example of how pleasurable political history can be when written by a skilled teller of fictional tales who has a careful reporter’s respect for facts. It is top-drawer as political history, unusually well written, and stuffed with forty pages of notes providing sources for an extraordinary variety of information. It is also an entertaining human tale of generational conflict, filled with the elements that enliven popular novels and soap operas.

Thus, near the book’s end is a puzzling yet moving episode in which two young lovers—Ike’s grandson and Dick’s daughter—find the old general resisting their marriage. Is this another example of Eisenhower’s enduring discomfort with Nixonian culture? Or evidence that the Eisenhowers have become social snobs who fancy themselves too high-toned to have a Nixon in the family? Or is it, as Eisenhower insists, just another case of old folks telling the children they are still too young to marry and ought to wait a year or two? In the long history of the hypersensitive Ike-and-Dick relationship, many interpretations seem possible.

If Nixon’s feeling for Eisenhower was tightly controlled anger, at least in the vital years before old age and frequent illness had their cruel way with the general, Eisenhower’s feelings for Nixon seemed to fluctuate between indifference and contempt. He had virtually no input when blooded Republican politicians offered Nixon as his vice-presidential candidate for the 1952 campaign. Apparently innocent as a newborn about political mechanics, Eisenhower was startled to learn that a presidential nominee could choose whomever he pleased for vice-president. His innocence left the choice up to a group of the Republican Party’s eastern internationalists led by Thomas E. Dewey.

A former governor of New York, Dewey was anything but innocent. He had run twice for president and lost, first to Franklin Roosevelt, then to Harry Truman. The sentimental Republican favorite for the presidential nomination in 1952 was the conservative Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft. Eager to prevent conservatives from taking control of the party, the Dewey group set out to block Taft by nominating the war hero, Eisenhower, who was regarded in both parties as probably unbeatable in a general election. The question was whether the general could be nominated in a convention devoted to Senator Taft. That nobody knew whether Eisenhower was a Republican or a Democrat complicated matters further. A variety of politicians sought him out for inspection and, one assumes, interrogation about his philosophy, and the Dewey team, having persuaded themselves and perhaps Eisenhower, too, that he was a Republican, launched a political scheme of great cunning. Devilishly cunning, the Taft people said. Essentially, the ploy disqualified enough of Taft’s convention delegates to clear the way for Eisenhower’s nomination and keep the eastern Republicans in control of the party.

Nixon was only a pawn in the maneuver. A few years later, Eisenhower told a news conference that he “basically had no role” in choosing Nixon. “The first thing I knew about the President or any presidential nominee having any great influence in the Vice-Presidential selection was, I think, about the moment that I was nominated,” he said. At the urging of a Dewey lieutenant, he jotted down the names of five or six men “that seemed to me to have made a name for themselves” and seemed “acceptable.” Nixon was on the list.

Frank’s book notes that Nixon, a Californian, “offered geographical balance and, as a busy anti-communist, some ideological comfort to the party’s right,” which was likely to need humoring after Taft’s defeat. He was already celebrated as a scourge of communism, thanks to his dogged pursuit of the Hiss case, his backing for a bill to limit domestic activities of the Communist Party, and his thuggish senatorial campaign painting California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas as a Red menace.

In 1952, having been tapped for the vice-presidency, he was summoned to the Eisenhower suite at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel to meet the general. There was no time to shave or press the sweaty wrinkles out of his suit. Frank writes:

As Nixon recalled it, he greeted Eisenhower with the words, “Hi, Chief,” and immediately sensed “a little coolness developing”—the general didn’t like being addressed that way.

The developing coolness that Nixon sensed at that moment is the natural starting point of the story Frank tells in Ike and Dick. Its focus is on Nixon, a fiercely ambitious young man struggling mightily for a success he can achieve only at the whim of a famous and powerful man old enough to be his father. Eisenhower, so vital to every aspect of Nixon’s very existence, is an offstage figure absorbed in the great problems of his era, too absorbed, we assume, to have much time for the Nixons of the world.

In a triumphant career he has been courted by hordes of ambitious young strivers and hardened by the experience. If he is quick to betray coolness when another young man hails him—and with a hearty “Hi, Chief”—it may not be a show of dislike, but only an old man’s weariness with the importunings of ambitious youth. Whatever the truth, the chill that Nixon felt in that meeting was to linger for years.

Ike and Dick repeatedly shows Eisenhower dealing so coldly, or contemptuously, or with such complete insensitivity toward Nixon that only the most hard-hearted Nixon hater will read it without a twinge of sympathy. In a useless effort to bond with Eisenhower, Nixon took up golf and fly-fishing though he had neither the patient disposition nor physical gifts required to enjoy either. Even if he had, it must have been obvious at an early stage that he was never going to become one of Eisenhower’s circle of social intimates. These were a small group of wealthy and older corporate leaders ready to fly across the country to wherever the general might need some company at a card table or golf course.

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