Not another book about Richard Nixon! The disgraced president’s life has been probed more exhaustively than a multiple alien abductee. But Jeffrey Frank is a nimble writer with a clear-eyed understanding of power. In novels such as The Conformist and Bad Publicity, he entertains readers with the soul-sucking vanities of Beltwayers on the left and the right. But his latest work, Ike and Dick, is history, not fiction. It reveals the nuances of the complex relationship between Nixon and the man under whom he served as vice president, Dwight Eisenhower, nuances that should resonate with Republicans who are waging an internecine struggle over the future of their party.
The pairing made sense, from an electoral standpoint. When Eisenhower declared his candidacy in 1952, eastern establishmentarians still dominated the GOP. But conservatives were flexing their muscles. After 20 years of Democrats in the White House, they grudgingly tolerated a popular centrist like Eisenhower. They were rewarded with a bone: a young, Red-baiting running mate from California who also resented elites.
Two months later the plan threatened to unravel. Frank adds little to the well-known story of Nixon’s Checkers speech, but its retelling provides necessary context. Despite his fatherly demeanor, Eisenhower was ruthless. He cut people loose without a second thought. But he never did it face-to-face; minions had to carry out the unpleasantness. This didn’t work with a street fighter like Nixon who was, surprisingly, more politically savvy than the five-star general who tamed Churchill and DeGaulle. When Eisenhower tried to get him to withdraw from the ticket, Nixon went on TV and appealed to the public, forcing the ex-Supreme Commander’s hand.
And yet, despite this inauspicious beginning, they got along fairly well. Perhaps the most important contribution of Frank’s book is its depiction of the evolving role of the vice presidency. Before the Cold War, the office was a joke, a trumped-up sinecure. But split-second decisions that could cost millions of lives forced a reappraisal. Although he always treated him like a junior member of the firm, Eisenhower took pains to keep Nixon up to speed in the eventuality of his death, which almost occurred twice.
When we arrive at Eisenhower’s heart attacks — the first took place in 1955, the second in 1957 — Frank quickens the narrative pace. With thriller-like intensity, he informs us of the severity of the president’s condition, which was largely kept a secret. If the 25th Amendment had then existed, the Cabinet probably would have declared him disabled. In fact, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked Eisenhower’s doctor if there was a way to “control him medically.” In both instances, Nixon acquitted himself admirably. But while Eisenhower was grateful, he still didn’t consider him a worthy successor.
After Nixon lost to Kennedy in 1960, the Republican Party began to move to the right. Eisenhower was alarmed by Barry Goldwater’s nomination, but he lacked the courage to speak out publicly against him. Nixon, on the other hand, bent with the wind. As vice president he was an advocate for civil rights. But in the late 1960s he exploited the white backlash against the movement. When he ran again for president, he adopted a “Southern strategy,” suffused with racially coded rhetoric.
Nevertheless, Frank reminds us that Nixon did not govern as an ideologue. He created the EPA, proposed a national health insurance program, ordered his Justice Department to enforce desegregation rulings. The Vietnam War was a divisive mess, but Nixon’s talks with the Soviet Union and China eased nuclear tensions. He was following in his master’s footsteps: like Eisenhower, he stuck to the middle of the road. Unfortunately, he allowed his self-destructive side to lead him down a dark detour called Watergate.
In the last two presidential elections, the Republican candidates invoked Ronald Reagan’s name with a Tourette’s-like frequency. No one mentioned Eisenhower, another successful two-term Republican president. This is because Eisenhower is a RINO (Republican In Name Only) in the eyes of Tea Partiers and viewers of Fox News. And even if he had served out his second term, Nixon would be ignored as well. Their common sense approach would be drowned out today by shrill extremism. As Frank writes, the moment has passed when “it was still possible to . . . glimpse the shape of a post-Eisenhower presidency that could have been defined by domestic innovation and creative foreign policy, and that might at the very least have given the illusion of an enduring, peaceful center.”
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.