IKE AND DICK: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage. By Jeffrey Frank. Simon and Schuster. 448 pages. $30.
Some moments in American history impress themselves on the national consciousness so indelibly that they resemble less a contested and complex narrative and take on the mantle of national mythology. Just to mention the words Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate can close more conversations than they could ever hope to critically sustain and enliven.
Jeffrey Frank’s “Ike and Dick” is that rare and understatedly important book that suggests a subtle rethink, offering both the casual reader and the student of history a surprisingly candid and humane look at the national villain-in-chief, Richard Nixon.
And just as significant, Frank helps to round out our portrait of Nixon’s venerable political mentor, the equally wily and fickle President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
To say that Nixon suffered a deficit of trust, even among his staunchest allies, borders on the type of simplifying understatement Frank disdains throughout this gem of a political biography.
Frank’s contribution, one based on painstaking research and interview access to all of the era’s key players, shows us just how much the intellectually polished and energetic Nixon remained mired in a potent admixture of insecurity and awe when it came to Eisenhower.
No matter how diligently Nixon pursued Eisenhower’s approbation and confidence, it was never forthcoming, with profound implications for Nixon and our nation’s political trajectory during the late 1950s and 1960s.
Despite the high-profile nature of Nixon’s vice presidency under Eisenhower, the No. 2 never felt availed of the president’s confidence and trust, never truly gained entry into Eisenhower’s select group of Republican leaders. While his selection as Eisenhower’s running mate came out of political convenience and party strategizing — the two had never had a conversation before Eisenhower’s acceptance speech — Nixon worked diligently for the administration over the entirety of the first term, proving his worth, mettle and loyalty time and again.
Yet as he could sense, and as evidenced from others Frank has interviewed, Eisenhower never took to Nixon, no matter how ably and discreetly the vice president carried out his assigned roles at home and abroad.
Frank’s even-handed and novelistic rendering of the historical and psychological significance of this odd drama adds more to the reader’s understanding of the paranoia of the later Nixon White House than any volume double or triple its size.
Eisenhower was more or less assured a second term, but not necessarily Nixon in the vice presidency. Eisenhower’s eventual acceptance of another Eisenhower/Nixon ticket in 1956 proved wise indeed, in lieu of the several health scares and hospitalizations during his second term.
When the eight years of the Eisenhower administration came to the end, however, the president would wait until the last possible minute to throw his support behind Nixon’s ill-fated campaign against Kennedy.
Nixon lost for many reasons in 1960. However, Frank makes a convincing case that Nixon may have felt justified in casting much of the blame at Eisenhower’s feet. No matter his successes and unquestioned loyalty, he never truly made it into Eisenhower’s confidence.
The psychological scars ran deep, and Frank’s accessible and conversational narrative is equipped to tease them out, and in doing so, we have a much more complicated and human version of Nixon than popular history is wont to allow.
Equally, the morally steadfast and victorious Eisenhower, the man who could do no wrong after delivering an end to World War II’s European Theater, looks a little different at the end of this carefully argued and nuanced book.
Reviewer Zach Weir is a writer based in Oxford, Ohio.