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An Enduring Partnership

Jeffrey Frank brings a novelist's touch to this sympathetic account of one of America's oddest political couples.

By From the March 2013 issue

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Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage
By Jeffrey Frank
(Simon & Schuster, 434 pages, $30)

Damn,” was the initial reaction. Although 40 years have passed, here comes another one: another book by another of those East Coast liberal scribblers—Pat Buchanan calls them “the offspring of the old jackal pack”—out to kick Richard Nixon around one more time, and in the process embellish the Nixon caricature that has replaced the man in so much of today’s popular historicizing.

But as it turns out, that’s not it at all. True, Jeffrey Frank has all of what normally would pass for anti-Nixon credentials: stints as an editor at the Washington Post and New Yorker and author of four well-received novels, including the “Washington Trilogy.” But despite those bona fides, Frank appears, if not admiring of, then not hostile and perhaps even sympathetic to Nixon as a striving politician struggling to win the approval of Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the truly great figures of the last century. Frank even seems sensitive to the relationship that would necessarily develop between these two unique and highly intelligent men, culminating in the union of their families with the marriage of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower.

“Nixon’s early relationship with Eisenhower,” Frank writes, “who was old enough to be his father, had a filial aspect, though one without much filial affection.” Eisenhower, Nixon believed, expected “rapid, absolute obedience,” and while serving as Ike’s vice president, he often felt “like a junior officer coming in to see the commanding general”—as indeed he was. And that is no doubt the way Eisenhower looked at Nixon: as a junior and later senior staff officer, with a specific place on the organizational chart. Later, writes Frank, Eisenhower would come to value Nixon’s “logical mind” and his loyalty. He also appreciated the standing Nixon gave him with the anti-Communist right.

Problems first arose between the two in 1952, shortly after Senator Nixon had been chosen as Eisenhower’s running mate, when news stories charged Nixon with benefiting from a secret fund supplied by wealthy donors. Eisenhower was annoyed that his still unproven vice presidential candidate was tainting his campaign with a whiff of scandal, no matter how faint. He gave Nixon a choice, although it was never quite expressed directly, and Eisenhower preferred to send indirect suggestions through emissaries like Murray Chotiner and Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, a political friend of Nixon and an Eisenhower favorite. Nixon was to clear his name or drop off the ticket. He, in effect, was told he was on his own.

In a speech delivered live on television from the El Capitan Theater in L.A., Nixon did just that. In what became known as the “Checkers speech,” called by the author and journalist Sam Leith “a rhetorical classic,” Nixon accounted for every cent that had been donated to his campaign. And when that was settled, in a move he called “unprecedented in the history of politics,” he told his audience he would give “a complete financial history: everything I’ve earned, everything I’ve spent, everything I own.” He referenced Pat Nixon’s “respectable Republican cloth coat” (they couldn’t afford a mink). He added that there was one gift from a supporter his family intended to keep: a cocker spaniel puppy named Checkers. In response, Republican Party headquarters was flooded with some 4 million communiqués.

General Eisenhower, watching from Cleveland where he was to speak, would later tell his audience: “I have seen many brave men in tough situations. I have never seen any come through in such fashion as Senator Nixon did tonight.” Yet, writes Frank, “Eisenhower was not entirely pleased by Nixon’s performance.” It took the decision of whether to keep Nixon on the ticket out of his hands, and when Nixon suggested all candidates reveal their finances, that included Eisenhower. But for the moment, the speech had demonstrated that his determined young staff officer had something extra, and when the Nixons flew to meet him in West Virginia, Eisenhower “came bounding up the stairs” of the plane, put his arm around Nixon, and told him, “You’re my boy.”

According to Frank, that would remain somewhat in question. But perhaps, as he points out, although the ongoing uncertainty about Nixon’s relationship with Eisenhower would make life harder, “there was no way to pretend that important decisions about Nixon’s future belonged to Eisenhower alone.” Or perhaps, put another way, Nixon would have to take his future in his own hands and not depend on General Eisenhower for prompting or direction. Eisenhower liked officers able to take the initiative.

TO A GREAT EXTENT, the ongoing Eisenhower-Nixon relationship, as Frank develops it, follows the general pattern set in 1952. In 1956, despite Nixon’s service as a goodwill emissary, visiting more than 50 countries, and an expansion of his domestic responsibilities, there were again unofficial moves to replace him, the most bizarre involving Harold Stassen, who, Frank observes, “had a stubborn streak, and, for all his innate intelligence, a dim-witted streak too.”

Throughout the Eisenhower years and the various crises—Korea, China, Hungary, Suez, and Indochina, where Eisenhower refused American involvement in 1954—Nixon proved himself an apt and serious student of international affairs. One of his assignments as vice president was to do the rhetorical political dirty work, just as Spiro Agnew and Joe Biden would later do. But it was in foreign policy that Nixon would excel, and Eisenhower provided an invaluable and extended tutorial. It was in foreign policy, too, that Nixon would later record his greatest achievements as president.

But it’s here that one of the problems with Frank’s book lies. Because President Eisenhower died just a couple of months into President Nixon’s first administration, too soon to see some of the foreign-policy principles he passed on to Nixon bear historic fruit, the Eisenhower-Nixon story comes to an anti-climactic end, and Frank sums up the post-Eisenhower period in a catch-all chapter titled “What Happened Next.”

Thus, at about the time when Richard Nixon began to mark his greatest successes, we’re left for the most part with the Nixon of Checkers, the loss to Kennedy, the California gubernatorial fiasco, the years in exile. True, that also excludes Watergate, and we do have Nixon’s extraordinary comeback of the sixties. But a large part of the book is about Nixon as the man of sorrows—striving, losing, picking himself up, trying again. There’s little about the Nixon who shone briefly but brilliantly on the international scene, successfully ending the war in Vietnam, shattering the stale international status quo, recalibrating the balance of power with his stunning trip to China in 1972, setting in motion the events that would lead to the breakup of the Soviet empire, and saving Israel from impending military defeat.

In Vietnam, mindful of Eisenhower’s 1954 admonitions against involvement in a ground war there, and in the face of great domestic opposition, he conducted what the historian Robert Merry called one of the great strategic retreats in military history, and he did so in the face of intense domestic political pressure and frequent violence, keeping steady pressure on the North while systematically withdrawing American combat troops. South Vietnam was left standing as an independent nation, only later to be invaded and defeated because of congressional unwillingness to honor our commitments.

Eisenhower died before the outcome of the war was decided. But from his hospital bed two weeks before the election, writes Frank, “he sent Nixon a letter that was meant for publication and concluded with ‘one final, heartfelt comment’ regarding Vietnam:

[P]erhaps because of my own background I have watched with particular interest what you have done and said in the heat of campaigning about so delicate a matter concerning our country as the Vietnam war. You have stood steady and talked straight, despite what must have been heavy pressure and temptations to reach for popular support through irresponsibility. I commend you especially for this; it befits you and befits our country.

IN A CHAPTER TITLED “David and Julie,” Frank describes one of the genuinely bright and happy interludes for both the Nixons and the Eisenhowers, when, in 1968, David Eisenhower, the former president’s grandson, and Julie Nixon, the president-elect’s daughter, were married at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York. (The story of their engagement and apprehensions about getting the necessary family approvals is best told in the splendid remembrance Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961–1969, by David Eisenhower with Julie Nixon Eisenhower.)

Just as Julie was a totally dedicated daughter (as Norman Mailer once observed after watching Nixon with Julie and Tricia at the Republican Convention, a man with daughters like that can’t be all bad), David was a dutiful grandson. They had been seeing each other for some time, and by late 1967, they knew they had to tell their parents and grandparents they’d like to marry. Mamie Eisenhower responded enthusiastically, and gave David her mother’s engagement ring to present to Julie.

But the problem was the general. David had spent much of his boyhood on the farm in Gettysburg, where Eisenhower brought him along like the brightest and most favored of his junior officers, and David held his grandfather in great respect. He knew his grandfather wanted him to finish college and get established before considering marriage. “For two days, I awkwardly evaded mentioning the engagement in Granddad’s presence,” he said, and returned to college without having broached the subject.

But Mamie had broken the news, and Eisenhower sent his approval by mail: “Mamie told me of your telephonic report of the joy you and Julie felt on her acceptance of your great-grandmother’s ring. I am more than delighted that the two of you feel such deep mutual affection. You are both the kind of people who will, throughout your lives, enrich America.”

And that is precisely what they have done. Their marriage has been an exemplary one, with three fine children. And for those like Ben Stein, Aram Bakshian, and me, who worked in the White House during the Watergate years, we’ll never forget Julie’s fierce loyalty to her father and concern for his staff. Whatever his real or imagined faults, Richard Nixon had the total support of a splendid family, who were with him to the end. And that has to say something important about the character of the man.

IN JANUARY 1969, after being sworn in by Chief Justice Warren, Richard Nixon delivered a 17-minute “gentle and conciliatory” speech: “We will strive to listen in new ways—to the voices of quiet anguish, the voices that speak without words, the voices of the heart—to the injured voices, the anxious voices, the voices that…have been left out, we will try to bring in.”

“The speech,” writes Frank, “could not have been less like the one delivered by Jack Kennedy, with its rhetorical inversions and Cold War language.” (And that, one might add, was a warning of troubles to come.)

After a post-swearing-in lunch with new cabinet members and legislators, “the president and his entourage ran into the angry rhetoric that he had just been talking about. Nothing like it had ever been seen at an inaugural. Some demonstrators threw rocks and bottles and smoke bombs and eggs at the passing limousines, and chanted ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the N.L.F. is going to win.’”

On the weekend before the inaugural, Eisenhower phoned. “It was, he told Nixon, his last chance to say, ‘Hi, Dick!’—after that, it was going to be ‘Mr. President.’”

And after that, for Frank, it’s pretty much a matter of mopping up. He characterizes the domestic policy of the Nixon administration in its early months not so much as a rerun of the Eisenhower years as “a policy-making laboratory with beakers bubbling in every corner.” In foreign policy, Nixon set about repairing relations with Western Europe, negotiating arms reduction with the Soviet Union, and normalizing formal relations with mainland China.

Frank concludes by dealing briefly with Richard Nixon’s last extraordinary comeback as author and world statesman. He reflects on those “first months of 1969,” the what-might-have-been years when “it was still possible to look past the hideous war and glimpse the shape of a post-Eisenhower presidency that could have been defined by domestic innovation and creative policy, and that might at the very least have given the illusion of an enduring, peaceful center.”

As Margaret MacMillan, the Canadian historian and author of the splendid Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World once put it, “Even historians who disapprove of psychohistory find themselves tempted irresistibly when it comes to Richard Nixon.” But for the most part, even though he’s more novelist than historian, Jeffrey Frank has resisted the temptation to overanalyze, and in the process has given us a well-crafted, thoroughly researched, and strongly written examination of the relationship between two men who played central roles in shaping the history of the 20th century.

Dwight D. Eisenhower long ago received his well-earned due. Perhaps now, with the passing of old antagonisms, the fading of ideological animosities, the thinning of the old “jackal pack,” and the emergence of new generations of writers and historians, Ike’s partner will finally receive his. 

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).