Throughout U.S. history, presidents and vice presidents usually have not been close to each other. One has all the power of his office; the other does not. That invariably leads to many opportunities for misunderstandings, slights and mistrust. The mix is especially difficult if the president is an elder statesman and the symbol of victory in World War II, known to the public as being “above politics,” and the vice president is an ambitious young politician with a reputation as a ruthless campaigner.
Such is the situation Jeffrey Frank explores in Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage. “There was never a real breach, there was, rather, a fluctuating level of discomfort,” he writes. Dwight Eisenhower’s attitude toward Richard Nixon ranged from “mild disdain to hesitant respect.” Yet their relationship continued—especially through the marriage of Nixon’s daughter, Julie, and Eisenhower’s grandson, David—until Ike’s death in 1969, shortly after Nixon was elected president.
Exactly how their coupling as a political team began is something of a mystery. No one present in the Chicago hotel room where Nixon was chosen by Republican Party leaders seems to have a clear memory of what happened. Eisenhower seems to have taken a back seat in the selection process. Until his own nomination, Eisenhower did not realize that he would need to name a vice-presidential candidate. Three years later, when he was asked about his role in the VP choice, he replied that he wrote down the names of five or six younger men he admired, including Nixon, and said to Republican Party leaders that any of them would be acceptable to him.
The two men barely knew each other, but Nixon understood that any hard partisan campaigning would be up to him while Ike remained, as much as possible, above the fray. This was to remain the pattern throughout their two terms in office, and it affected how the public regarded them. In addition, Ike used Nixon for such unpleasant tasks as firing his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, who had become the focus of a scandal.
Nixon pointed out much later that Ike was “a far more complex and devious man than most people realized.” This first became apparent to Nixon during the initial campaign when reports of a “Secret Nixon Fund,” supported by millionaires, came to light, and Eisenhower did not rush to the defense of his running mate. It was not until the generally positive reaction to Nixon’s nationally televised “Checkers” speech to explain himself that Ike expressed his support.
Frank devotes a revelatory chapter to the circumstances surrounding the speech. Shortly before he went on the air, Nixon was told that “all of Eisenhower’s top advisers” wanted him to end his remarks by submitting his resignation to Ike. Nixon came to understand that this “suggestion” was what Ike also wanted. Nixon refused, and after that neither man felt he could completely trust the other.
Nixon craved Ike’s approval, though, and the maneuvering between the two men to achieve their individual objectives runs throughout the book. Once in office, Ike made lists of other men who would make good vice presidents, and raised questions—both publicly and privately—about Nixon’s suitability for the presidency. In 1955, even before Eisenhower had decided to run for re-election, he proposed that Nixon accept a cabinet position in a new administration. And in 1956, he did nothing to stop the effort to replace Nixon on the Republican ticket.
This lively narrative touches on various personalities whose relationships with Nixon were particularly important. He became close to John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, who tried to give Nixon a larger role in the administration. Nixon was the one major official at the time who made a special effort to meet regularly with black leaders. He had been on friendly terms with Martin Luther King Jr. for several years when, in 1960, during the run-up to the presidential election, King was arrested after a civil rights demonstration and sentenced to prison in Georgia. Yet when Coretta Scott King contacted both presidential campaigns for help, it was John F. Kennedy who returned her call and helped to obtain her husband’s release. Nixon said he had “frequently counseled with Dr. King and [had] a great respect for him,” but he did not want to make what he called “a grandstand play.”
Anyone interested in U.S. politics will enjoy Jeffrey Frank’s absorbing tale of two very different men and their turbulent relationship.