The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)
Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
“Show, don’t tell” is good advice for biographers as well as novelists and journalists. Jeffrey Frank, who is all three, follows it in his dual presidential biography of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. What he shows through their intersecting lives is how profoundly American politics and culture shifted during the mid-twentieth century.
Frank calls his book a “portrait of a strange political marriage,” but it is really the story of a menacing father and an anxious son—Abraham and Isaac, to be precise. Twice Father Ike raised the knife, first during the 1952 “secret fund” campaign crisis, which threatened Nixon’s place on the GOP ticket, and then again in the winter of 1955–1956, when the president and his advisers debated whether Nixon should be re-nominated as vice president. (Ike’s heart attack the previous September made this decision particularly sensitive: Nixon was a damaged heartbeat away from the presidency.) On both occasions Eisenhower was inclined to let the knife fall. But his unwillingness to do the messy deed himself—a lifelong trait—allowed Nixon to survive.
Survival was one thing. Approval was another. That Nixon never got from his boss. The temperamental differences were too great. Both men were ambitious, ruthless when necessary, and inclined to deception—traits that made them avid poker players. Otherwise they had little in common. People liked Ike, a natural leader if ever there was one. As Gen. Omar Bradley said, his smile was worth twenty divisions. No one felt that way about Nixon, a talented but introverted politician lacking in social graces. Though Ike found Nixon useful as a partisan brawler, he never let him into his social circle, dominated by businessmen cronies, or his political council, initially dominated by establishment Republicans....