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,…

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