Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were awkwardly partnered politically across two decades, needing but never fully comfortable with each other. Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage by Jeffrey Frank tells the story captivatingly but mostly ignores their religious dimensions, including evangelist Billy Graham’s role in their final reconciliation.
(For a comprehensive review of the personal and political dimensions of Ike and Dick, see John Coyne’s piece in the March 2013 issue of American Spectator.)
Nixon was only 39 years old when five-star General of the Army Eisenhower, already a global figure for over a decade, and 23 years older, chose him as veep for the 1952 campaign. Ike knew him but not well, listening to counselors like New York Governor and former presidential aspirant Tom Dewey, who, like Nixon, had risen fast as a young man, first running for president himself when only age 38. Like Dewey, Nixon had ambitiously made himself a national figure as an aggressive prosecutor, in Nixon’s case, while in Congress, helping expose the Soviet spy Alger Hiss, a revered diplomat and establishment figure who contrasted with Nixon’s plebeian roots.
Temperamentally intense, Nixon’s years with Eisenhower were plagued by repeated crises, some fueled by Ike’s ambivalence towards his underling. The first crisis was almost immediately in their new partnership, when Ike’s advisors, and probably Ike, wanted to dump Nixon after revelations of secret donors for Nixon’s personal expenses as congressman and senator. Ironically Dewey were deployed to phone Nixon with instructions to parachute. Nixon ignored the counsel and delivered his famously televised “Checkers” speech, which critics mocked as mawkish, but which restored Nixon to political grace. Ike, who previously was not even phoning his running mate, rushed onto a plane to wrap his arm around a relieved Nixon while proclaiming, “You’re my boy!”
In power, Ike appreciated Nixon’s intelligence while not inviting him into his inner circle or, as Nixon painfully noticed, into his private White House quarters or the Gettysburg farmhouse. Once again, Eisenhower tried to ease Nixon off the ticket in 1956, while a shrewd Nixon nervously but successfully outmaneuvered the President politically. In 1960 Ike was slow to endorse Nixon as his successor, seemed constantly to encourage others to run in place or against Nixon, and infamously told a press conference he needed a week before he could answer a question about Nixon’s accomplishments. When Ike was ready to campaign aggressively for Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower implored Nixon to reject the offer out of worries for her husband’s health, which Nixon glumly did, losing narrowly to JFK.
In retirement, Ike seemed to draw closer to Nixon, inviting the Nixons to the Eisenhower Winter home in Palm Springs as well as Gettysburg, accompanied by frequent and almost warm correspondence. Nixon carefully kept Eisenhower informed about Nixon’s political plans, and Ike encouraged Nixon’s disastrous run for the California state house, after which Nixon had seemed finished.
Predictably, even after Nixon’s incredible political restoration in 1968, Ike seemed slow to publicly embrace his candidacy. By this time Ike was permanently hospitalized though mentally alert. Eisenhower finally broadcast from his hospital room an endorsement of Nixon to the Republican Convention. He was not overly happy about his grandson’s engagement to Nixon’s daughter, although Mamie had encouraged the union. After Nixon’s tight victory, he had an emotional visit to Ike’s sick bed, where Ike momentously greeted his once protégé as an equal, now calling him “Mr. President.” Nixon kept Ike carefully informed about the construction of his new administration, even sending new appointees to Ike’s hospital room. Henry Kissinger, who had not met Ike before and had supposed him not particularly bright, found himself surprisingly captivated by the ailing general’s intellect and strong personality, including Ike’s penetrating blue eyes, which many visitors thought grew stronger as Ike’s face and body whitened and shriveled.
Oddly, this book omits a key part of the Eisenhower/Nixon story. In December 1968, Ike summoned Billy Graham to his hospital room, asking him to explain once again the plan of salvation, after which Ike told him he was ready for eternity. He also told Graham that Nixon and he had “some things to get right,” especially as Ike’s grandson was soon marrying Nixon’s daughter. At Ike’s request, Graham saw Nixon that evening and shared Ike’s desire to meet, prompting Nixon to arrange a visit, which facilitated reconciliation. Nixon visited Ike again after his inauguration as Ike was failing. Upon hearing of Ike’s death not long after, Nixon wept in his office in front of staffers and muttered: “He was such a strong man.”
It’s odd this book ignores the Graham visit, which Graham describes in his memoir, and which Ike’s grandson cites in his own recent memoir about his grandfather. The book ignores or minimizes religion, claiming Ike disliked attending church, and regarded his pastor during the presidency, Rev. Edward Elson of the First Presbyterian Church, who had been recommended by Graham, as a “complete phony,” citing Ike’s secretary as source.
If so, it’s strange that Ike attended Elson’s church for eight years, and submitted himself to one-on-one catechesis with Elson so as to become a church member. Eisenhower in retirement became active in the Gettysburg Presbyterian church, even intervening to ensure the young pastor whom he liked would not be relocated, and once even himself preaching a sermon.
Ike and Nixon had a spiritual commonality in having both been reared in pacifist churches. Nixon was raised Quaker, and Ike in the River Brethren, a Mennonite-like sect. Later the Eisenhowers, or at least Ike’s mother, joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are also pacifist. (Ike’s anti-war mother was a little girl in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley amid the Civil War’s devastation.) Although both leaders in war, Nixon and Ike both avidly pursued peace.
Ike’s secretary also recounted that Ike was befuddled by Nixon, his introversion, gloominess, and lack of personal friends, which contrasted with Ike’s gregariousness. They occasionally golfed together, which unnerved Nixon. The younger man, despite his anger and exasperation, deeply admired and craved acceptance by the heroic older man, who was almost certainly a father figure to Nixon as he was to the nation.
Nixon’s and Eisenhower’s uneasy association was difficult for both but shaped the nation and world for a half century and beyond, as some Nixon protégées served prominently in government well into the 21st century. Their partnership may indeed have been “strange,” as the book title suggests, but it was epochal.