Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriageby Jeffrey Frank
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon had a political and private relationship that lasted nearly twenty years, a tie that survived hurtful slights, tense misunderstandings, and the distance between them in age and temperament. Yet the two men brought out the best and worst in each other, and their association had important consequences for their respective/b>… See more details below
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon had a political and private relationship that lasted nearly twenty years, a tie that survived hurtful slights, tense misunderstandings, and the distance between them in age and temperament. Yet the two men brought out the best and worst in each other, and their association had important consequences for their respective presidencies.
In Ike and Dick, Jeffrey Frank rediscovers these two compelling figures with the sensitivity of a novelist and the discipline of a historian. He offers a fresh view of the younger Nixon as a striving tactician, as well as the ever more perplexing person that he became. He portrays Eisenhower, the legendary soldier, as a cold, even vain man with a warm smile whose sound instincts about war and peace far outpaced his understanding of the changes occurring in his own country.
Eisenhower and Nixon shared striking characteristics: high intelligence, cunning, and an aversion to confrontation, especially with each other. Ike and Dick, informed by dozens of interviews and deep archival research, traces the path of their relationship in a dangerous world of recurring crises as Nixon’s ambitions grew and Eisenhower was struck by a series of debilitating illnesses. And, as the 1968 election cycle approached and the war in Vietnam roiled the country, it shows why Eisenhower, mortally ill and despite his doubts, supported Nixon’s final attempt to win the White House, a change influenced by a family matter: his grandson David’s courtship of Nixon’s daughter Julie—teenagers in love who understood the political stakes of their union.
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Meet the Author
Jeffrey Frank was a senior editor at The New Yorker and the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s Outlook section. He is the author of four novels, including the Washington Trilogy—The Columnist, Bad Publicity, and Trudy Hopedale. He lives in Manhattan with his wife Diana. They have one son.
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Ike and Dick
The war in Europe ended on May 7, 1945, when the chief of staff of the German army came to a small red schoolhouse in Reims, France, headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight David Eisenhower, and signed Germany’s unconditional surrender. Six weeks later, Eisenhower was in Washington for a parade in his honor. Stores and offices were closed and signs said “Welcome Home, Ike!”—the nickname he’d been given by childhood friends, soldiers, and total strangers. A million citizens watched the olive drab motorcade make its way from National Airport to Capitol Hill, where the general spoke to a cheering joint session of Congress.
In Manhattan on the following day, some four million people turned out to see Ike as his open car traveled through the city. They filled the sidewalks and peered from windows, fire escapes, and almost any perch that let one claim a fleeting glimpse. The motorcade—twenty-one cars, including the newsreel brigade—went from the airport across the Triborough Bridge and entered Central Park at East 96th Street. There it made its way through the park where Eisenhower was applauded by thirty thousand schoolchildren lined up along the side of the road; now and then, a supervising teacher, or a nun in a black habit would tell the kids to step back, to get out of the way.
With music provided by the Army band, the parade reached 60th Street and headed down Fifth Avenue, where the crowds grew thicker, pushing against barricades to see the general, a smiling fifty-five-year-old just under six feet tall, who stood and waved, occasionally returning a salute when he spotted men in uniform, some of whom were on crutches or had empty sleeves. At 44th Street, the police department’s band took over from the Army’s, and then, at 23rd Street, the fire department band replaced the NYPD’s. At Union Square, as the caravan turned east and then motored south along the East River Drive, Eisenhower was able briefly to relax. It was a hot day—temperatures were already in the 90s—and when the cars approached the Fulton Fish Market, the sour air started to fill with a mist of ticker tape and torn paper—seventy-seven tons of it, by one account. Eisenhower again rose to his feet and raised his arms to make them look like stiff cornstalks.
One of the spectators was a Navy man, Lieutenant Commander Richard Milhous Nixon, who in his last months in uniform had been assigned to negotiate contract terminations with defense suppliers and, since the first of the year, had been moving around—from Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York, where he happened to be on this June day, on Church Street. He watched the parade from the vantage point of a high window, which gave him an excellent view as the procession moved along lower Broadway. “Maybe I just think it was that way—I was about thirty stories up—but I have the picture that there he came, with his arms outstretched and his face up to the sky, and that even from where I was I could feel the impact of his personality,” Nixon recalled on several occasions. “I could just make him out through the snowstorm of confetti, sitting in the back of his open car, waving and looking up at the cheering thousands like me who filled every window of the towering buildings. His arms were raised high over his head in the gesture that soon became his trademark.” A variation of this—two arms aloft with two fingers held up in victory symbols—would become a Nixon trademark, too.
• • •
Years later, even after all that happened between them, even though Eisenhower frequently made his life miserable, Nixon still saw him as a large historical figure, distant and even unapproachable despite his startlingly friendly smile. When Nixon talked about him to crowds and reporters, his language could veer toward reverence; in moments of ecstatic campaigning, he might refer to him as a man singled out by destiny, the heroic figure of that victory parade. But as Nixon got to know Eisenhower, he came to see a different man: someone who could radiate kindness and bonhomie while acting with cold indifference and even casual cruelty; and someone comfortable with issues of war and peace but far less so when it came to the problems of his own country and the politics of Washington.
On a personal level, Nixon’s early relationship with Eisenhower, who was old enough to be his father, had a filial aspect, though one without much filial affection. He saw the president as someone who rarely appreciated his contributions and as someone used to rapid, absolute obedience. During his eight years as vice president, he often felt “like a junior officer coming in to see the commanding General,” and sometimes a junior officer who had to endure rebukes and snubs, some of them more imagined than real. The journalist and Nixon confidant Ralph de Toledano told a friend, “There were times when I would find Nixon literally close to tears after a session at the White House during which Eisenhower humiliated Nixon.”
Nixon, though, was an attentive pupil. He observed Eisenhower’s responses to international crises and domestic emergencies and saw the value of an orderly, hierarchical White House, the importance of gestures, and the virtues of patience. Some of these lessons would fade, but Nixon absorbed them with the steady focus of an A student, eager to play a larger role in the eyes of a superior who regarded him as a bright synthesizer rather than as a proponent of imaginative views. Eisenhower did not have a high regard for professional politicians, but he valued Nixon’s logical mind and his expressions of loyalty; and after a time, he listened to his opinions on questions ranging from civilian control of space to civil rights. It was understood that Nixon, as a veteran Red hunter, helped to protect Eisenhower from the resentful Republican right; Eisenhower returned the favor by giving Nixon an increasingly useful veil of moderation. Neither man regarded this as a partnership; vice presidents since the time of John Adams traditionally filled a distinctly peripheral role. But by accident as well as design, their association, in and out of office, grew and that helped to shape the ideology, foreign policy, and domestic goals of the twentieth century.
• • •
When Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, he was an elderly sixty-two; the war had worn him down—years of heavy smoking, too much coffee, and nonstop stress. When he selected the thirty-nine-year-old Nixon as his running mate, he relied on his advisers, most of whom he didn’t know well and who hadn’t come up with many choices; in any case, he wasn’t personally acquainted with the potential field. Apart from an occasional stateside visit, he’d been away from America (in Panama as a young officer; in the Philippines as an aide to General Douglas MacArthur; in North Africa and Europe during the war) a lot more than he’d been home. He had met Nixon only twice, and briefly—at a Bohemian Grove summer retreat in the summer of 1950 and in Paris in the spring of 1951, when he was at SHAPE, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. He was aware of all the anti-Communist excitement in the States in which Nixon had played a significant part, but he never recorded an impression of Nixon himself.
On the surface, the two men could not have been less alike. Nixon was a talented speaker, but he often seemed miserable in his political appearances; the journalist Russell Baker saw him as “a painfully lonesome man undergoing an ordeal,” and sympathized with “his discomfort with the obligatory routines of his chosen profession.” As a public man, he knew that he was unloved and sometimes spoke of the pain that cartoonists inflicted (“I’m not exactly amused to see myself pictured as a lowbrow moron,” he said of the Herblock drawings that appeared with some regularity in the Washington Post). The aspect that so delighted caricaturists—the close-set eyes, dark, heavy brows, what Garry Wills called his “spatulate nose”—were all the more striking in contrast to those of Eisenhower, who had an expressive, mobile face (his skin turned dark red when he was angry) and that dazzling grin—a spectacular display of surface warmth. Ike’s appearance sometimes seemed to change as new thoughts occurred to him, which made him seem, as the military historian B. H. Liddell Hart observed, spontaneous and transparently honest.
Despite that surface candor, though, Eisenhower was as private a man as Nixon, and sometimes an intimidating man. Many were struck by his eyes—“those cold blue laserlike eyes,” an early campaign volunteer recalled. When he got angry, his longtime aide Bryce Harlow said, it was like “looking into a Bessemer furnace.” Those moments passed quickly; what was far more difficult was being subjected to his chilliness when, as Harlow put it, “those blue eyes of his turned crystal cold.” Nixon sometimes felt that unsettling chill, even when nothing was said. He came to realize that the president might refer to him in embracing terms—“We are very close. . . . I am very happy that Dick Nixon is my friend”—just as he was aiming to be rid of him. And while Nixon acquired and kept a reputation for duplicity, Eisenhower was equally accomplished in the arts of deception and misdirection. He had no trouble ordering Nixon to undertake some of his nastiest chores, such as firing his top White House aide, and he tried to disassociate himself from Nixon’s meanest campaign rhetoric, as if his vice president was speaking for someone else. As Nixon later put it in a much cited phrase—language over which he carefully deliberated—Eisenhower was “a far more complex and devious man than most people realized.” Nixon’s vice presidential years were sometimes a struggle for survival. He was nearly forced off the ticket—and into political oblivion—in 1952, and Eisenhower wanted to jettison him four years later; both times, Nixon out-waited and outmaneuvered the general. When Nixon lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960, the most damaging—and memorable—words of the campaign were uttered by Eisenhower. Nixon thought that he knew who his enemies were—Eisenhower’s favorite brother, Milton, had little use for him; the president’s press secretary, James Hagerty, could be distinctly unhelpful when Nixon most needed him, Eisenhower’s close friend General Lucius Clay didn’t trust him—and sometimes he didn’t know whether to number Eisenhower among them.
Nixon was always alert to the trap that he’d gotten himself into: doing what the party and the president expected of him could undermine his future, and it could be worse for him if he rebelled. It was a costly bargain. He was always on call to express the angry id of the party, but when he did so his opponents would resurrect a label he acquired in his 1950 Senate race: “Tricky Dick.” Because of this dilemma, Nixon often acted in a certain carefully controlled way; in his perfect, modulated responses, there was an aura of artifice—not exactly calculating but as if he were measuring and judging each word, the “tight-lipped, over-tense, and slightly perspiring manner of a desperately earnest man determined to make no slightest mistake, but not quite at home and not likely to be,” in the words of William S. White. “I was constantly aware of an inner man, one who was very private, very elusive,” the Eisenhower adviser Gabriel Hauge wrote in an unpublished autobiography, and at the same time, the outward man was much like any striving employee—exceptionally well prepared, taking careful notes, in a constant quest for commendation from a boss whose approval could always lift his uncertain spirits.
• • •
Even in their worst moments, there was never a real breach; there was, rather, a fluctuating, unspoken level of discomfort. So it was a curious thing that their relationship, which was both political and personal, lasted and evolved as it did for nearly twenty years. Its duration alone was highly unusual. Presidents and vice presidents, whether Herbert Hoover and Charles Curtis (America’s first and only Native American vice president) or Franklin Roosevelt and his three running mates, tended to have little or nothing to do with each other in or out of office. Eisenhower and Nixon had much to do with each other although Nixon was never in Ike’s inner circle (his offices were across town, in the Capitol, where he could fulfill his only constitutional duty, as president of the Senate). During his presidency, though, Eisenhower tried to include Nixon in the decision-making machinery of the administration (Nixon kept count of the number of cabinet and National Security Council meetings over which he presided); he used him as a goodwill emissary, sending him to more than fifty countries over eight years while steadily increasing his responsibilities; and there was a barely perceptible shift in power as Eisenhower, limited by the Constitution to two terms and weakened by illness, saw Nixon’s presidential goals become clearer and increasingly plausible.
The two men were also drawn together at the end of Ike’s life for personal reasons: in November 1967, over the general’s objections, his grandson and namesake, Dwight David Eisenhower II, and Nixon’s younger daughter, Julie, both of whom were born in 1948, announced their engagement; a year later, the Eisenhower and Nixon families were united by marriage. Yet even teenagers in love could become entangled in politics when the teenagers belonged to these two families. The relationship between David and Julie played a real part in Nixon’s 1968 comeback campaign and it affected his relationship with Eisenhower, who, though he said that Nixon was ready for the presidency, seemed doubtful about his ability to win, and not entirely pleased by the prospect of actually having him in the White House.
In June of 1945, Dick Nixon was in many ways the model of the bright young postwar American professional out to improve his lot, a type recognizable to readers of novels by James Gould Cozzens or Sloan Wilson. He had been a lawyer in his hometown, Whittier, California (named after the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier), and worked briefly in Washington, in the tire-rationing section of the Office of Price Administration. He got a Navy commission in August 1942, and served fourteen months in the South Pacific, in Bougainville; his last Navy assignment brought him to Middle River, Maryland. At thirty-two, he was older than most returning veterans, and he had no clear idea what was next for him, although he would likely return to the Whittier law practice that he’d joined after graduating from Duke in 1937. He had responsibilities now. In June 1940, after an intense and single-minded courtship, he had married Thelma Catherine Ryan, known as Pat, an attractive young woman with dark red hair. Jessamyn West, a Nixon cousin and the author of the novel Friendly Persuasion, thought that Pat looked a little like Marlene Dietrich—“The same slanted, almost Slavic eyes. . . . The same strong nose and clear jawline. The same long torso and fine legs.”
Although Nixon had finished near the top of his law school class (a classmate described him as “a very studious individual—almost fearfully so”), his career options were surprisingly few. He had tried without success to find a position with several New York firms and had even applied to be an FBI agent. He’d given some thought to politics, too. Before the war, Herman Perry, a banker and a Nixon family friend (he’d gone to college with Nixon’s mother), had asked half seriously if he was interested in running for an open seat in the State Assembly.
Perry played a large role in what happened next, a story that sometimes got exaggerated as it did in a note that the excitable broadcaster Paul Harvey sent years later to Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods: “Somebody related a secondhand story about Dick Nixon answering a want ad for a Congressional candidate,” Harvey wrote and asked for details for his broadcast, adding, “Young people need every possible reminder that the American dream is still good.” Woods did fill in the details, although by then they were familiar to anyone who had followed Nixon’s career. The “want ad” was actually a handout mailed in the late summer of 1945 to newspapers in California’s 12th Congressional District; it invited prospective candidates to apply to a Republican fact-finding committee, whose goal was to defeat the five-term Democratic incumbent. Perry knew that Nixon met the qualifications: he was young, educated, and a veteran. In a letter to Nixon—airmailed, which gave it a special urgency—Perry asked how he’d feel about getting into the race, and as one would expect of an ambitious young man presented with a path to change his life in so alluring a fashion, Nixon was elated. This was an altogether exciting opportunity, something that could combine many of his talents: his cleverness, a gift for public speaking, the lawyerly logic and boundless energy that he brought to a courtroom. He got so wound up that he placed a long-distance call to Perry, who advised him to calm down: he explained that Nixon still had to go through a selection process, and even then might face a primary. On the other hand, Perry was ready to work in Nixon’s behalf, and told his colleagues that “Lt. Nixon comes from good Quaker stock and is about thirty-five years of age [sic]. . . . He is a very aggressive individual.”
Nixon was chosen after his second appearance before a local selection committee (the Los Angeles Times ran a smudgy photograph of “Lt. Cmdr. R. M. Nixon” in his Navy uniform, and said that his supporters characterized him as “a natural-born leader and . . . a well-known debater and orator in collegiate circles”), and although the election was still a year off, he was consumed by it. He wasn’t polished and never would be: “He has terrifically large feet”—actually, 11-D—“and we had trouble getting a pair of shoes that was big enough for him,” Roy Day, the Republican Central Committee chairman, said. Day also worried “that he wouldn’t look women in the eyes, in the face. He’d turn his head; he was shy.” Nixon, though, was determined. He campaigned all over the district and lured the incumbent, Horace Jeremiah (Jerry) Voorhis, into a series of debates for which Nixon, the strategic litigator, had prepared himself, as if for a chess match. People who had known him as a polite and deferential young man, a lawyer embarrassed by the intimacies of marital lawsuits, were surprised by his ferocity, in particular the Red scare rhetoric that he added to the mix: a claim that Voorhis had been endorsed by a political action committee that was infiltrated by Communists. Communism was not yet the issue that it would become four years later, in the prime of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but it was very much in the air; and Nixon was tutored by Murray Chotiner, a chubby, cigar-smoking, quick-witted criminal defense lawyer (his firm often defended bookmakers and drunk drivers), Jewish, and a veteran of California politics. Chotiner had helped to elect Earl Warren as governor in 1942 and would one day get credit for the idea that a successful politician needed to run a “permanent campaign” and for some nasty modern campaign practices, including the dictum that to be successful you need to “deflate the opposition candidate before your own campaign gets started.” Nixon won with 56 percent of the vote, and almost as soon as he arrived in Washington with his wife and an infant daughter, Patricia—“Tricia”—he began to make a name for himself.
If Nixon’s entry into politics was a triumph of will and hard work, Eisenhower’s was the result of circumstance and, in the end, acclamation. His appointment in 1943 to command the Anglo-American Overlord operation—a relatively sudden ascent from lieutenant colonel to four-star general—had a lot to do with luck and timing; the post would otherwise have gone to his mentor and benefactor, the Army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall. The assignment acknowledged Eisenhower’s intelligence as well as a gift for dealing with difficult personalities—Churchill and de Gaulle, General George Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery among them—and his disinclination (in contrast to General Douglas MacArthur, under whom he had served in the Philippines) to preen.
On the day that Washington put on its victory parade, a column by the influential Walter Lippmann began, “The cheering in the streets will die down, but his renown will endure,” and went on:
Although he bore the majestic title of Supreme Commander, in fact he commanded by leading and he led by consent. It is an art which is not described in any book of rules because it is reserved for those who are gifted with a happy nature and are faithful to a good philosophy. Everyone likes Eisenhower.
Lippmann did not employ the word “president” in this column, but that would have seemed almost anticlimactic after asserting that Ike’s “genius is to have in an uncommon balance, common sense and common humanity.” These qualities seemed to be on display during the last leg of his journey as he went by train from Kansas City to his hometown, Abilene (pop. 5,760), and watched the most extravagant parade in the town’s history; 35,000 people from the surrounding area came to applaud. When he was asked about politics, he said, “All I want is to be a citizen of the United States, and when the War Department turns me out to pasture that’s all I want to be.” And yet he also sounded like someone with more on his mind. “We are not isolationists,” he said. “We are a part of the great civilization of this world at this moment, and every part of the world where a similar civilization prevails is a part of us.”
If Eisenhower in 1945 wasn’t yet talking about a political future for himself, other people, including Harry Truman, were. In Eisenhower’s war memoir, Crusade in Europe, published early in 1948, he revealed an astonishing conversation with the president in Potsdam, in July 1945, during which Truman “suddenly turned toward me and said, ‘General, there is nothing that you may want that I won’t try to help you get. That definitely and specifically includes the presidency in 1948.’ ” Ike’s response was to laugh and say that it would never happen. There was, though, a practical difficulty in pushing Eisenhower toward presidential politics: there was no place for him in 1948 despite the urging of disaffected Democrats, including James Roosevelt, one of FDR’s sons, to enlist him as a substitute for the increasingly unpopular Truman; and besides, no one seemed to be sure of his party affiliation, which he waited until 1952 to declare. The smart political columnists regarded the idea of an Eisenhower candidacy as a “complete chimera,” and just before the 1948 election it all seemed moot: Eisenhower was appointed president of Columbia University and Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York was expected to defeat Truman.
After the 1948 election, though, many influential Americans began to look again at the general. In fact, on the morning after Truman defeated Dewey, a man named Edward Bermingham, a Chicagoan who had made his fortune as an investment banker, asked Eisenhower to come to dinner in Chicago—Ike would be the guest of honor. Bermingham had put together a list of well-to-do Americans, people like Fred Gurley, the president of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway System; and newspaper publishers like Colonel Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, and Marshall Field of the Chicago Sun-Times; the chairmen of the board of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, along with the presidents of the Swift and Armour meatpacking companies; several bankers; and even Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago. These were the sort of men whose company the general enjoyed and the sort who began to encourage him to seek the presidency.
Dick Nixon, as a freshman congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee, stood out from a disreputable crew—among them the racist and outspokenly anti-Semitic John Rankin of Mississippi and the committee’s chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, who led the investigation of alleged Communist influence in Hollywood and later went to jail on tax fraud charges. Nixon also stood out by managing actually to expose someone—namely Alger Hiss, who was accused of passing classified documents to the Russians. The case was revelatory as well as puzzling because Hiss, then the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a model of New Deal achievement and aplomb—a Harvard Law School graduate, the secretary-general of the United Nations Charter Conference, in 1945, and the well-connected friend of people like Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, and John Foster Dulles, who was then the president of the Carnegie Endowment’s board of trustees. In the end it was Nixon who let Hiss trap himself with his increasingly convoluted testimony and lawyerly avoidances. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, was so drawn to the twists and mysteries of the Hiss affair that she sent copies of Seeds of Treason, a celebratory book about the case, to friends.
In his first term Nixon also served on the Select Committee on Foreign Aid, led by Christian Herter of Massachusetts. From August to October 1947, the Herter Committee, as it came to be known, toured Europe, and the misery that they saw deeply impressed them. “Hamburg, Berlin and the other German cities looked up at us just like great gaunt skeletons,” one of Nixon’s typical diary entries said. “We could not understand how it was possible that three million people could be living . . . there like a bunch of starved rats in the ruins.” The committee’s report helped the European Recovery Program—the Marshall Plan—win the support of Congress in March 1948 and was the sort of stand that brought Nixon closer to the internationalist Republicanism of people like Governor Dewey and General Eisenhower. Congressman Nixon in 1947 also came out in favor of a U.N. peacekeeping force, which led to accusations that he was an agent of world government.
Nixon was restlessly ambitious, and by the fall of 1949 he was in pursuit of a Senate seat. His eventual opponent, following a ferocious Democratic primary, was Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former Broadway star who since 1944 had served in the House. Nixon was once more coached by Murray Chotiner and ran an unusually harsh campaign, insinuating while never quite saying that Mrs. Douglas was not a loyal American. The Nation magazine characterized him as a “dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice,” and even his loyal congressional staff considered the race a “nasty, sordid” effort. Although such excesses more or less ended after the midterm elections of 1954, Nixon’s reliance on casual smears and the sneering dismissal was most pronounced when he ran against Mrs. Douglas, and until the Watergate affair, critical biographers tended to focus on that Senate race. His opponents never forgot it or forgave him.
• • •
They were reared in different countries. Eisenhower was born in 1890, and his first memories of “the war” were of the Civil War veterans he’d seen when he was growing up in Abilene. For Nixon, born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, fifteen miles from Whittier, it was the Great War. If Nixon, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. suggested, was a product of “the mobility of the new technical society,” appealing to other Americans who were “rootless, sectionless, classless,” then Eisenhower was a product of a rural, more homogeneous America that was steadily vanishing, a nation now so distant that despite the film and recordings of some of its people and locales, its true images are difficult to summon. They moved in different circles. Eisenhower maintained a few old friendships from his Army days, but he was more drawn to his new ones from America’s business elite, with whom he spent hours playing golf and bridge, competing furiously at clubs like Augusta National, where Nixon was never a guest. Nixon was not a popular figure in Washington; he lacked the chumminess of many politicians, and his early, intemperate campaigns had made many journalists wary of him. He did have Republican allies on Capitol Hill, where he enjoyed the company of the Chowder and Marching Society, a loose, congenial band of small-town congressmen, and as vice president he formed a sympathetic bond with, among others, John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, whose view of the Cold War he shared and whose social stiffness resembled Nixon’s. Nixon also liked just being alone, often jotting notes on one of the yellow legal pads that were his constant accessory; he could be silently absorbed for hours. Eisenhower, by contrast, always liked to have people around.
One might think that they belonged to different classes, but in fact their backgrounds were curiously similar. Both came from modest circumstances, and were reared by devout mothers—Ida Stover and Hannah Milhous—and short-tempered fathers: David Eisenhower, who worked as a mechanic in a local creamery, and Frank Nixon, who ran a general store in East Whittier, where Dick helped out. “His temper could blaze with frightening suddenness but when things were going along at a casual tempo, he was a good companion,” Ike said of his father, “My father had an Irish quickness both to anger and to mirth,” Nixon wrote. “It was his temper that impressed me most as a small child.”
Both were deeply affected by early deaths in the family. Dick was the second oldest of five Nixon brothers, only three of whom lived into their mid-twenties. Arthur was seven when he died in 1925; Dick was twelve. “We never really knew for sure what killed Arthur,” Nixon told the biographer Jonathan Aitken, but he believed that it was a tubercular fever caused by the milk of an infected cow—and Frank Nixon had pushed his family to drink unpasteurized milk. “My father was very firm in that idea,” Nixon told Aitken, who recalled that he had tears in his eyes. “He just kept going and stuck to his guns on raw milk.” Harold, who was four years older than Dick, suffered from tuberculosis. Hannah Nixon took him to the dry climate of Prescott, Arizona, a fourteen-hour drive from East Whittier; mother and son stayed there for almost three years. Edward Nixon (born in 1930) believes that Harold’s death, in 1933 at the age of twenty-four, affected his older brother’s life “forever.” Everyone adored Harold—“he was blond and blue-eyed—more like my father,” Ed Nixon said. Jessamyn West remembered Harold as a “brighter, more handsome fellow” than Dick, adding, “I’m sure in his family they felt the best had been taken.”
Eisenhower was the third of seven brothers, one of whom died in infancy. His parents were members of the River Brethren, a sect closely related to the Mennonites who had emigrated from the south of Germany; Ida was a regular participant in the Abilene Ecclesia of the International Bible Students Association, which became Jehovah’s Witnesses. The pacifistic impulses in Eisenhower’s speeches and writings were very likely influenced by this upbringing, in much the way that the Nixon brothers were influenced by the beliefs of Hannah Milhous, a Quaker.
When Eisenhower was twenty-five and an Army lieutenant stationed in San Antonio, Texas, he met and soon married nineteen-year-old Mamie Doud. A year later, they had a son—Doud Dwight, nicknamed Icky, who died of scarlet fever when he was three. A half century later, writing about Icky’s death, Eisenhower said, “I have never known such a blow. This was the greatest disappointment and disaster in my life, the one I have never been able to forget completely.” Not even the birth of a second son, John Sheldon Doud, born in 1922, could get Dwight and Mamie over the loss of their firstborn.
Both Eisenhower and Nixon—the citizen-soldier from Kansas and the lawyer-politician from Southern California—were engaged by the problems and conflicts of the world and by the personalities of American politics; in the 1960s, when both were out of office, they could shake their heads in appalled unison over the early mistakes of the Kennedy administration, such as the bungled invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, and over Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War; and they could create a fiction of party unity to get them past the embarrassment of the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. In 1963, when Nixon joined a Wall Street law firm and started to accumulate wealth for the first time, it was as if he’d metamorphosed into one of the contented businessmen to whom Eisenhower had always been attracted. By the time he was fifty, Nixon had become a prosperous Republican elder while Eisenhower was receding into history.
Over years of casual familiarity, Eisenhower’s view of Nixon kept changing—from the disdain that he felt for most professional politicians to doubts about Nixon’s “maturity” to a kind of hesitant respect. Nixon’s feelings about the general could change, too—from neediness and even awe to rare bursts of hateful rage, as when he called him a “goddamned old fool” or by one account “a senile old bastard.” Yet at the very end, when the general was dying and Nixon had become the nation’s thirty-seventh president, Eisenhower still had a powerful hold on him; just as he had affected the intense young man Nixon had been—insecure, smart, and curious, capable of nasty practices and benevolent acts—he affected the man he had become. “After Nixon got elected, he invited a few of us to go upstairs and see what the living quarters were like,” the political strategist John Sears said. “And all he talked about was how it looked when Eisenhower was president—where he had his medals and what he had over there and where he had his desk and all that stuff. All the time we were running, he was always anxious that Eisenhower be filled in on what we were doing, and how well we were doing. He felt better if he thought Eisenhower thought he was doing well.” Nixon could never be sure what Eisenhower really thought of him, but it never ceased to matter, and his restive pursuit of Ike’s good opinion remained one of the few constants in an extraordinary life.
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