Thursday, March 07, 2013

What We're Reading: New History

Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, by Jeffrey Frank

Jeffrey Frank has written an original and engrossing account of one of the most improbable and ambiguous relationships in American politics. It is a study that gives us fresh insight into the character of both Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. The author’s extensive research and numerous interviews must have produced tantalizing vistas down which a less disciplined journalist might have wandered, but Frank has kept his eye on his subject, the nature of the relationship between the two men in all of its constants and vicissitudes. In selected verbal and written exchanges between the two men, he identifies the points that have resonance, those that reveal feelings held in reserve or suggest larger patterns of dissonance. He frequently has been able to locate some confidential or illuminating quote from individuals who witnessed the interaction or who were friends to whom Eisenhower or Nixon made offhand comments about their opinions of one another. Frank’s objective stance produces a narrative that pulls the reader in by allowing him to draw his own conclusions. But expect as well to be at times bemused and uncertain. There is no reduction or simplification here that would diminish what was in fact an ambiguous and complicated relationship. The author’s restraint, along with the disciplined focus of the narrative and his practiced ear for the telling nuances of language, make this a particularly engaging story.

Ike and Dick gives the reader insights into Eisenhower’s character that enlarge and elaborate the portrait presented in a number of recent books that have reassessed the Eisenhower Presidency. We see a more calculating and cold side of Eisenhower here, and come to understand to a fuller extent his leadership style, which could often be manipulative and devious. He did not have the political skills and instincts that Nixon had, but those skills were ones he largely disdained, and perhaps more importantly, because of his status as an American hero, did not need to dirty his hands with for his political advancement (something that mere mortals struggling up the political ladder sometimes resented). His political naiveté sometimes got him into trouble or made trouble for those around him. But in his experience of command he had developed a set of administrative and bureaucratic skills that, despite their indirection, could be as hard and unforgiving as the most calculating political decisions. Whatever his personal feelings for his vice president, Eisenhower’s ambivalence about Nixon seems at least in part to have come from their differing styles and experiences. He was practiced in making judgments about the qualities and potential of his subordinates, and he did not equate the skills of a politician with the ability to lead. It appears that his suggestion to Nixon to abandon the vice presidency in 1956 and take a cabinet position was not, as Nixon took it, an attempt to simply dump him from the ticket, but rather reflected Eisenhower’s genuine belief that he needed to have administrative experience, his view that Nixon, whatever his political savvy, was immature when it came to the leadership skills that would be needed if he were ever to assume the presidency. And indeed, when Nixon did win the presidency in 1968, who he would pick for his cabinet and how he would organize his administration of the office were the subjects upon which the ailing general felt most compelled to offer the new president his advice and counsel.

But let us be honest here. Although we may be happy to learn a little more about Eisenhower, the reason we are most likely to pick up Ike and Dick is because the roadside wreck of Richard Nixon’s public career continues to be a story from which we still find it hard to divert our furtive gaze. Ike and Dick, in the end, is mostly a book about Richard Nixon in all his ambition, cussedness, and loneliness. Some years ago, the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote a book about Nixon that he titled One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream. There seems to be something in the psychology of the hurts and longings, in the relentless suspicions, in the way he wore his defeats in such a way that they seemed like ignominy, that we all understand on some level. They are symptoms of the politics of a certain time and age in America. We feel a sense of paradox, that while Nixon often seemed an outlander (or maybe because of that) he was yet one of us. Stories about his awkwardness, stiffness, and caution abound in this narrative, along with tales of his sometimes antipodal bizarre and intemperate behavior. Readers will find these the most fascinating parts of this book. But Nixon, whatever his faults, is in ways an everyman, something that Eisenhower in his exalted and near mythical place could never be. It is hard not to read Ike and Dick without walking away feeling a little more sympathetic to Richard Nixon. Frank, in a rare aside towards the end of the book, offers us his own opinion of what he thinks is the essential--and almost classically tragic--dynamic of Eisenhower and Nixon’s relationship. At Eisenhower’s death Nixon delivered a eulogy in the Capitol Rotunda, and when he was done an observer noted that as he walked out he broke into tears. Frank writes, “It is hard to imagine that those were tears of grief. They are better explained by Nixon’s continuing sadness at never having been admitted to the general’s small, rarely expanded circle, the one that he reserved for friends. Nixon was outside that circle even when his daughter became an Eisenhower, and now it was closed to him forever.” It seems a good description of the nature of a relationship between the two men whose relationship could never be called one of intimacy, but yet for one of them, we come to understand, was in ways poignantly intimate.

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