- - Tuesday, February 12, 2013

By Jeffrey Frank
Simon & Schuster, $30, 448 pages

First a double disclosure: I know Jeffrey Frank, the author of “Ike and Dick,” and I knew Richard Nixon, half of this book’s political “portrait.” I consider the former an honest, accomplished writer and the latter a flawed but visionary statesman and a personally decent man, often more sinned against than sinning. One hopes these two very different personal connections will neutralize each other.

One of my few major criticisms of “Ike and Dick” is its subtitle: “Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage.” The fact is that almost all political marriages are “strange” — hence the old adage that politics makes for strange bedfellows. When it comes to the politics of selecting presidential running mates, there is seldom room for love matches.

The political couplings of George Washington and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and, especially, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — were all considerably “stranger” and often more uncomfortable or opportunistic than the rather well-balanced matching of the avuncular, above-the-political-fray war hero Dwight Eisenhower and the intense, youthful California senator who helped to rally alienated Taft supporters to the 1952 GOP ticket.

The true test of any good marriage, political or otherwise, is not how it begins but how it ends. The Eisenhower-Nixon match had a happy ending. Like Andrew Jackson, another popular soldier-turned-statesman, and Martin Van Buren, a canny New York political pro, Ike and Dick brought complimentary assets to the ticket and the work of governing. Beyond that, the two men — and their families — drew steadily closer for the rest of their lives. The Eisenhower-Nixon bond now bridges four generations, symbolized by the long and happy marriage of David Eisenhower (Ike’s grandson) and Julie Nixon Eisenhower (Nixon’s daughter), and their offspring. Given the way things have turned out, “admirable” might be a better adjective than “strange” to characterize the original match.

Not that it didn’t have it’s share of ups and downs. Many politicians and pundits on the left never forgave Nixon for the role he played in unmasking Alger Hiss as a traitorous liar, and many Republican rivals who coveted Nixon’s slot as Ike’s presumptive heir did their best to drive wedges between the two men. Mr. Frank does a particularly good job of chronicling the shabby, self-serving efforts of Harold Stassen who sought to bump Nixon from the ticket in 1956 — to make room for guess who? Everyone from Eisenhower on down quickly saw through that one. Stassen, after making a fool of himself, began a long, downhill slide from being the promising Boy Wonder of Minnesota politics to a laughable, perennial also-ran.

Aside from age and professional background, the biggest difference between Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower was one of temperament. Ike, though very self-contained, liked being around people, especially those who shared his social ease and could unwind naturally at a card table, on a golf course or in a trout stream. To put it mildly, these were three places where Richard Nixon — physically awkward, shy and self-conscious where Eisenhower was graceful, confident and relaxed — seldom shined. On sensitive, sometimes hazardous foreign missions, however, in helping to belatedly face down Sen. Joseph McCarthy and in demonstrating a growing mastery of domestic and international policy, Nixon gradually earned Eisenhower’s trust and esteem, as well as his sincere support as a presidential candidate in both 1960 and 1968.

Among other things, Mr. Frank puts into proper perspective Ike’s notorious throwaway line at the end of one of his weekly press conferences. Asked if he could give an example of a single major decision in which his vice president had played a decisive role, he responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” Uttered as a careless joke, this ill-considered remark both stung and stuck in a way Eisenhower probably never intended, and clearly regretted afterward.

For Nixon, it seemed a brutal rebuff from a man he would have liked to consider a father figure, but who saw him primarily as a fairly senior assistant. It is a tribute to both of them that, in the end, they became genuine friends.

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as aide to presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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