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.
Eisenhower wanted Nixon to tell his story on television. He told Nixon he would probably wait until a few days after the speech to make a final decision about whether he would drop him from the ticket. “There comes a time in matters like this,” an understandably angry Nixon told Eisenhower, “when you’ve either got to s**t or get off the pot.” To make matters worse, Nixon received a phone call from Tom Dewey — the party’s presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948 — just before the speech telling him that it was the opinion of Eisenhower’s closest aides that Nixon should resign from the ticket after the speech. Frank writes that “to Nixon, it couldn’t be clearer that the general wanted him to dematerialize.”
But Nixon was not so eager to disappear. His “Checkers” speech, which got its name from the Nixon family dog referred to in it, was the first important televised political speech. More than one-third of the country watched. Nixon’s critics, including many modern-day historians, have found it “mawkish,” but the public loved it. Eisenhower had no choice but to keep Nixon.
Had Eisenhower and his advisers been truly disgusted by the news of the fund, they should have cut ties with Nixon and chosen a new running mate. By the fall, the matter would have blown over, Eisenhower no doubt would have still easily defeated Stevenson, and Nixon could have gone back to the Senate and probably would never have become president. Alternatively, Eisenhower could have taken a firm stand and defended Nixon by claiming that he had broken no laws and that an audit had cleared him of any improprieties. Ike’s seal of approval would most likely have quashed the investigation. Instead, Eisenhower took the worst of all possible stances. His ambivalence fueled Nixon’s insecurities. He forced the dog into the corner and the dog fought back hard.
Nixon saved his political career with the “Checkers” speech, but at a cost. It deepened the distrust between the two men. Nixon forced Eisenhower’s hand and remained on the ticket. Eisenhower never trusted professional politicians; Nixon had shown the general just what kind of skills a professional politician could muster. The marriage had begun.
When Eisenhower was gearing up for reelection in 1956, word began to leak out that Nixon would be dropped from the ticket. Nixon thought he had done everything he was supposed to do as vice president, but Eisenhower encouraged him to step down and become secretary of defense. Eisenhower wanted Nixon off the ticket (as much as he would later deny it), but just couldn’t bring himself to order it. He wanted Nixon to fall on his sword. Nixon refused. Frank even suggests that Eisenhower tacitly approved the very public “Dump Nixon” campaign that Harold Stassen, who was then serving in the administration, led during the convention. But Nixon would remain on the ticket and the two men would continue their ambivalent relationship.
When Nixon ran for president in 1960, a remark Eisenhower made at an August press conference became legendary. When asked by a reporter to give an example of a Nixon idea that the president had adopted, Eisenhower peevishly answered: “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”
What actually seems to have caused Eisenhower’s outburst was his belief that the question implied that — owing to his health problems — he had lacked control over the government. Eisenhower immediately knew he had misspoken, but it was too late. Eisenhower’s health did not allow him to campaign strongly for Nixon, who narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy.
Throughout the next eight years, during Nixon’s political exile, the two men remained in contact. They were tied together by history — and later by marriage — but never completely comfortable with each other. During Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, Eisenhower expressed his support and respect for Nixon, but usually in guarded tones.
Eisenhower died at 78, two months into Richard Nixon’s first term as president. Frank concludes his book by wondering “whether Watergate and all of its tributaries would ever have materialized if the patriarch [Eisenhower] had lived beyond the first two months of the Nixon presidency.” Frank writes of an alternative history, a Nixon administration “defined by domestic innovation and creative foreign policy” and that might have at the very least “given the illusion of an enduring, peaceful center.”
Perhaps, had he lived, Eisenhower could have provided a sounding board for Nixon and eased some of Nixon’s paranoid tendencies. Ike and Dick clearly shows, though, how much Eisenhower, in his own unintended way, helped fuel Nixon’s paranoia and resentments. Over the years, the old general’s attitude toward Nixon alternated between demonstrating admiration for his intelligence and validating the idea that Nixon was not to be trusted. By behaving as he did, Eisenhower inadvertently added a respected voice to the growing belief in Nixon’s unsuitability for office, while inflicting psychic wounds on Nixon and adding to the sense of personal and political isolation that would culminate in Watergate. Thinking that Eisenhower could have changed history ignores the critical role that Ike played in creating the political character of Richard Nixon, one that still haunts both Nixon’s legacy and the nation he led.
– Mr. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts Boston.