In early 1952, New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams sent an urgent telegram to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s nascent campaign organization. He was ready to start organizing the Granite State, Adams wrote, “but there is one question which we would like to have answered.” Namely: “To which political party does General Eisenhower belong?”

That wasn’t a question anyone ever needed to ask about the man Ike later picked to be his running mate, Richard Nixon. Nixon’s earlier low-road campaigns for the House and Senate, and his dogged investigation of diplomat Alger Hiss’s 1930s ties to communism, had firmly established his partisan bona fides. Ike’s reputation soared above the fray; Nixon was ever (as he bragged) “in the arena.” If Ike was a fly fisherman, and a good one, Nixon preferred the gaff.

Ike and Dick:
Portrait of a Strange
Political Marriage

by Jeffrey Frank
Simon & Schuster, 384 pp.

What then brought these two men together and kept them together? It’s the question Jeffrey Frank’s new book, Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, attempts to answer. Despite a long relationship that ultimately included actual family ties (with the marriage of Nixon’s daughter Julie to Eisenhower’s grandson David), Nixon and Eisenhower never truly liked each other. But they needed each other, just often enough. In politics, that will do.

The twenty or so years during which the two men’s careers overlapped largely delimit the book. Ike met Senator Nixon in 1950, through the offices of former President Herbert Hoover. Two years later Nixon was seen as the young, but legislatively experienced, westerner, and a play-to-the-base attack dog, perfect for backstopping a campaign focused on the national like for Ike. But Eisenhower did not himself choose Nixon to be his running mate, though he approved of the youthful energy and balance he provided (Nixon was “dynamic, direct, and square,” the general said). Frank offers little detail on the meeting that finalized the selection; other accounts (notably that of historian Stephen Ambrose) suggest that it was orchestrated by party insiders Henry Cabot Lodge, Herbert Brownell, and Thomas Dewey. They hoped to marginalize California’s favorite-son candidate Earl Warren, while simultaneously offering an olive branch to supporters of conservative Senator Robert Taft, Eisenhower’s chief opponent at the 1952 convention.

Nixon’s bid for national office almost ended before it began, when allegations of a political slush fund seeded by business interests to support Nixon’s career began to surface. Nixon was within the law, but Ike, disliking any breath of scandal, hoped his veep nominee would voluntarily resign from the ticket. Instead, Nixon salvaged his political career with his famous “Checkers” speech before a TV audience of nearly sixty million viewers. It was one of the first times (but certainly not the last) Nixon demonstrated his ability to appeal to middle-class insecurities with what his former speechwriter Lee Huebner describes as a “sense of embattled resentment.”

This is the first book of history by Frank, who served as an editor at the Washington Post and the New Yorker. He has also written four novels, including three set in Washington; in Ike and Dick, Frank’s journalistic and novelistic skills are both put to good use. Though he lives in New York, Frank’s inner Washingtonian is still intact: he has a keen ear for the for-the-record statement that doesn’t quite mean what it says. For instance, Eisenhower, when pressed by reporters in 1960 to name a major idea of Nixon’s that he had adopted as president, replied crushingly that “if you give me a week, I might think of one.” Frank adds, drily, that Ike “did not rush to clarify the remark.” Nixon later returned the favor by not including a chapter on Eisenhower in his 1982 book, Leaders—though he did manage to find room to mention Douglas MacArthur.

Ike and Dick is eminently readable, with clever characterizations (Henry Kissinger, for example, had the skill of sounding “simultaneously rational and insane”) and an eye for telling detail. Frank has delved into presidential libraries, university archives, and oral history, and conducted numerous new interviews. While his reportage does not unearth long-buried scholarly bombshells, it does help an increasingly distant era come vibrantly alive. We are reminded that it used to take twenty-two hours to fly from Washington to Paris; that Nixon looked pale in his first televised debate with Kennedy partly because he had just been in the hospital for nearly two weeks; and that when Pat Nixon’s famous “respectable Republican cloth coat” could not keep out the winter wind at a campaign rally, Mamie Eisenhower passed over the corner of her large—fur—wrap.

We are reminded, too, that Ike’s robust bonhomie masked an increasingly fragile physique: a heart attack in the first term was followed by a stroke in the second, with gastrointestinal surgery in between. Part of the tension of the Eisenhower-Nixon relationship was fueled by the real possibility that Nixon would become president, and by how greatly this might matter. Frank points out Eisenhower’s worries about Nixon’s readiness for the top job, especially in a period when the use of nuclear weapons was routinely, almost casually, proposed in response to a wide array of conflicts. Eisenhower, for all his supposed complacency, proved both intense and conservative in the best sense on that crucial issue. Nixon, by contrast, was in favor of involving the U.S. military in Vietnam as early as 1954.

The brisk movement of Frank’s narrative sometimes elides complicated debates; it is far from obvious, for instance, that Senator Lyndon Johnson could simply have mandated stronger civil rights legislation in 1957 given the preponderance of Dixiecrats in his caucus. Nor, thanks to the electoral college, did Nixon “come within 118,000 votes of being president” in 1960 (in fact, fewer than 30,000 votes in the right places would have done the trick). On the whole, Frank’s judgment calls seem to be in Nixon’s favor, perhaps to ward off the inevitable claims of bias against a man who proclaimed himself “the most maligned political figure of the 20th century.” Along these lines Frank seems to undercount American deaths in Vietnam on Nixon’s watch by 15 percent or so, and the book doesn’t draw on recent research suggesting that the Nixon campaign was consistently, if covertly, involved in Protestant clerics’ efforts to attack JFK’s Catholicism in 1960. On the other hand, Frank’s stress on Nixon’s early, progressive positions on race and civil rights is a useful corrective. And Nixon’s characterization of the GOP right wing might make him unwelcome in today’s party: “The nuts … you could just hear them crackling there in the head.”

In any case, policy specifics are not the focus here, though the reader will certainly get a glancing sense of many of the issues facing the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s. Perhaps we should be grateful that Frank has eschewed yet another pained attempt to psychoanalyze Nixon; but along with the fine-grained description of what each man did, one wishes he might have let his instinct for characterization roam a bit more into the why. The conventional wisdom about Eisenhower, especially immediately after he left office, was that he was a nice man but a bad politician. Today’s scholarly consensus reverses that charge, largely concurring with Fred Greenstein’s 1982 judgment that Ike was not a very nice man but was a very good politician. Frank at times seems to cast a negative vote on both fronts instead—Ike as a nasty naïf, who “as a politician … was still an amateur,” even in 1964—but the weight of the evidence even in the present volume is on the Greenstein side of the scales. The pretense of foreswearing political maneuvering allowed Ike to husband his prestige, hovering above the fray even as what Greenstein called his “hidden hand” worked behind the scenes. Eisenhower’s Army aide Walter Bedell Smith apparently complained to Nixon that Ike always needed a “prat-boy … someone who’d do the dirty work for him,” and Nixon himself called Eisenhower “one of the most devious men I’ve ever met,” quickly adding: “in the best sense of the word.”

For Nixon, though, it’s not clear that word really had a bad sense. If Eisenhower had still been watching, would Nixon have chosen the path to the Watergate? Frank speculates not, but this seems wishful thinking for opportunities lost. It is true that Ike told Bedell Smith in late 1968 that “I know Dick knows what to do. I just question whether he knows how to organize the government to get it done.” But Ike might have been guilty of wishful thinking himself, or of wishing he had done more mentoring of his junior partner while he was still junior. Organization was not, in fact, President Nixon’s problem. Indeed, the structure of his White House (and the managerial monochrome of his Cabinet) resembled Eisenhower’s far more than it did Lyndon Johnson’s or John F. Kennedy’s, neither of whom had a formal chief of staff. The problem for Nixon, in the end, was not that he couldn’t get things done. The problem was what he wanted to do.

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Andrew Rudalevige is a professor of government at Bowdoin College.