Watching the ever-amusing drama of Joe Biden playing the role of vice president is a reminder of the complicated and often uneasy relationship between vice presidents and their presidents. The voluble, almost buffoonish Biden stands in contrast to his younger and more in-control boss. We don’t know what Barack Obama really thinks about the man he chose to be his second-in-command, but it will be interesting to see what historians are able to tease out about their relationship in future years.
Jeffrey Frank’s book Ike and Dick focuses on another political odd couple: Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Eisenhower gave his vice president more responsibilities and duties than had any of his predecessors. Historian Irwin Gellman rightly believes that “Nixon deserves the title of the first modern vice president.” Despite this, the conventional wisdom has long held that there was no love lost between Eisenhower and Nixon and that the upright former general never really trusted “Tricky Dick,” even coming close to kicking Nixon off the ticket in 1956.
Frank does not necessarily disagree with the conventional wisdom, but presents this “marriage” with much greater depth and nuance. Ike and Dick is a gracefully written, sober, and judicious book that manages to humanize both of its subjects while capturing the strange amorality of politics. “Even in their worst moments, there was never a real breach,” writes Frank about the two men: “There was, rather, a fluctuating, unspoken level of discomfort.” Despite that discomfort, the relationship between the two men extended beyond Ike’s presidency, culminating in the eventual marriage of Eisenhower’s grandson David and Nixon’s daughter Julie.
The two men were separated in age by 23 years. Eisenhower always seemed comfortable in his own skin, able to command the respect of leading men in business, law, and politics. Nixon was awkward, a loner in both his personal and his political life. He did not have an easy way about him and attracted far more enemies than admirers. Both were men from modest means, but Eisenhower had already “made it,” while Nixon was in the midst of climbing the political ladder when Eisenhower selected him as his running mate in 1952. Everything seemed to come easy to Eisenhower, while everything with Nixon seemed to be difficult.
We are in the midst of a long-running reassessment of Eisenhower’s presidency. It is hard today to imagine how little regard commentators used to have for Eisenhower. In Arthur Schlesinger Sr.’s 1962 poll of historians, Ike ranked 22nd out of 31 presidents, sandwiched between Chester A. Arthur and Andrew Johnson. Eisenhower was thought to have been more concerned with his golf game than with governing: a dim but amiable man who symbolized an era of conformity and blandness. That has all changed as Eisenhower’s standing has steadily climbed in the last 30 years. At the same time, Nixon’s reputation has continued to be weighed down by the Watergate scandal, his name still synonymous with dishonesty.
The book avoids easy caricatures. Nixon is presented as insecure and awkward, but rightly upset at the shabby treatment he receives from Eisenhower and his aides. He is hardly a right-wing bogeyman; in fact, he is shown as considerably more liberal than Eisenhower on a number of issues, including civil rights.
Though Frank never explicitly says it, it is hard to read Ike and Dick and not come away with the feeling that much of the blame for the rocky relationship between the two men falls on Eisenhower’s shoulders. Eisenhower treated Nixon like a lowly second lieutenant, never once in eight years inviting his No. 2 to socialize with him.
Eisenhower never actually chose Nixon to be his running mate. He made a list of five or six younger men whom he felt comfortable with, and his advisers selected Nixon in a backroom deal at the Republican convention. Nixon was a young war vet from California, and his battle against Alger Hiss would appeal to anti-Communist conservatives. On paper, he seemed to complement Eisenhower.
Shortly after the Republican convention, journalists started tracking down a story about Nixon’s having an $18,000 political slush fund at his disposal donated by wealthy Republican businessmen. The press ran with the story as evidence of Nixon’s lack of ethics. In reality, the story was greatly exaggerated. Eisenhower demanded — and got — a full audit of Nixon’s finances. The nearly 50 lawyers and accountants found no irregularities. Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson had his own privately funded account with which he supplemented the salaries of state employees, a fund that, Frank notes, was “considerably larger and considerably less transparent than Nixon’s.” In addition, Stevenson’s running mate, John Sparkman, had put his wife on the Senate payroll.
The final irony is that, for all of Eisenhower’s high-minded talk of ethics, he was distinctly uninterested in having anyone look into a special tax exception he received that allowed him to treat the six-figure advance for his memoirs as capital gains, and therefore not subject to the higher income-tax rate. This did not stop Eisenhower from letting Nixon twist in the wind while the media and Democrats continued their attacks.