DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage

It was one of the oddest political couplings in American history - Dwight Eisenhower, the great World War II general and 2-term president, and his then-young vice president Richard Nixon. Ike and Dick. One revered by almost everyone and the other eventually driven from office by the Watergate cover-up and deep-rooted  psychological insecurities. Between them, they would seek the presidency 5 times, winning 4 of those elections. Their influence on the shape of America and the world was immense and their stories encapsulate most of the major events of the 20th Century.

This seemingly-strange, often-strained 19-year relationship between Eisenhower and Nixon is the subject of a new book Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage by Washington DC fiction novelist and former Washington Post editor Jeffrey Frank.

"This is a way to look at these 2 really interesting characters and this really interesting period," Frank said today at the National Archives, where he appeared to discuss his latest work.

The two candidates came to politics by very different routes. After leading Americans to victory in World War II, both Democrats and Republicans sought to have Ike - as everyone called him - run for president. According to reports, Harry Truman agreed to step aside if  Eisenhower would run as a Democrat in 1948. However, eventually Eisenhower identified himself as a Republican and easily captured the GOP presidential  nomination for the 1952 race.

Nixon was also a veteran of World War II, albeit, at 32 when the war ended, much younger than Eisenhower. He was convinced to run in his native California for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. After that success, he captured one of the 2 California Senate seats.

"In both elections he used the Communist issue (to smear his opponents)," Frank said. "In the 1950 Senate race, he played hard on the red issue. Some people never forgave him." In one of his more famous remarks from that tough campaign, he said his opponent was "pink right down to her underwear."

When he received the Republican nomination, Eisenhower was such a political neophyte that he didn't realize that he would get to choose his running mate. "He didn't know anybody. He had been in the war and hadn't really lived in America," Frank said. A number of names were suggested and Ike eventually chose the young, rising Nixon. Some of the factors in that decision included Nixon's age (he was 39 at the time, a strong contrast to the older Eisenhower) and he was greatly admired by the base of the GOP party. And, like Eisenhower, he was an internationalist, favoring a strong American presence in world affairs.

But even one of their first campaign photos revealed a rift between the two. The picture shows a beaming Nixon, who idolized Eisenhower, gripping Ike's arm while the soon-to-be president, who hated to be touched, let the distaste and awkwardness of the moment register on his face.

During the election, the GOP tried to portray the Truman years as corrupt and sleazy. One of their campaign slogans proclaimed: "Let's Clean House with Ike and Dick." However, soon Nixon found himself embroiled in a funding scandal. "Eisenhower wanted him off the ticket, but he couldn't fire people," Frank said. Instead, Nixon gave his famous Checkers speech denying any wrongdoing, survived the crisis, and became Vice President.

"If he hadn't survived, that would have been the total destruction of his political career," Frank said.

When Eisenhower prepared to run for re-election, he once again wanted to replace Nixon. He offered his Vice President a cabinet seat, contending that such a move would make Nixon a more experienced candidate if he sought the presidency in 1960. Nixon rejected the put-down and remained in the number 2 slot.

In 1960, Nixon did indeed run for president against Democratic challenger John Kennedy. Eisenhower did little to help Nixon's campaign. In fact, when asked by reporters to name a contribution Nixon had made as vice president, Eisenhower answered by saying "give me a week and I might think of one."

Kennedy narrowly bested Nixon in one of the most closely contested contests in presidential history. "This was his most devastating defeat and he never got over it," Frank said, noting that Nixon agreed with supporters who claimed the Kennedy team had stolen the election with the help of shady and illegal practices in key states.

But that was not the end of the story. As Eisenhower remained out of politics, Nixon slogged on. He lost a bid to become governor of California, but resurfaced to win the 1968 and 1972 elections. Eisenhower died in 1969, ending the connection between the 2 men.

Frank was asked if Eisenhower's actions showed that he detested Nixon. "It was not really dislike, but there was always a great tension between them," Frank said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Today's talk had a special connection for me. Dwight Eisenhower is the only president I ever talked to individually. The story goes like this. After leaving the presidency, Eisenhower established an office in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As a 9-year-old, I was vacationing with my family in Gettysburg. We were having lunch at the Lamp Lighter restaurant across the street from the Eisenhower office. Suddenly, a car pulled up and the former president exited. My mother urged me to rush across the street and meet the former president. With a Gettysburg map in hand, I did just that. I don't remember all of the conversation, but I do remember how I started it.  I thrust out my hand and proclaimed "Hi. My name is David, too." Eisenhower was gracious and signed my map. It is one of the 2 autographs I kept from childhood. The other? The signature of St. Louis baseball great Stan Musial, who was my Dad's favorite baseball player.

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