Jeffrey Frank is a novelist and journalist, previously serving as a deputy editor at the Washington Post and senior editor at The New Yorker. The subject of this interview, Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, is his fourth book. Ike and Dick explores the odd, drama-filled relationship between Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
The Politic: How did you get the idea to write Ike and Dick?
It’s an idea I’ve had for a very long time. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a way to do several things at once. For one thing, it was these two really interesting characters. It was on Eisenhower, who had been the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, the man who led the Allied Expeditionary Force, and was one of the most beloved national figures we have. We’ve had no one quite so beloved since. And then Nixon, who at the time was a very controversial figure already, and today is still regarded as kind of a wildly controversial figure.
[The book] was a way to sort of deal with the century. Eisenhower was born in 1890. He grew up in Kansas—he moved there—and the people he saw around him were Civil War veterans. And then Nixon died in 1994. He lived through the end of the Cold War. It was a way to get all this history of the 20th century. There was also the family story. I love the fact that there was a real marriage. The novelist side of me saw these two men who didn’t even know each other, didn’t even like each other, and then when Eisenhower died two months into the Nixon presidency, they were family. Nixon’s younger daughter married Eisenhower’s grandson. In Thanksgiving of 1968, they all had Thanksgiving together.
The Politic: In the first pages of the book, you wrote about a young Navy Lieutenant Commander, Richard Nixon, straining to see the victorious General Dwight Eisenhower through a “snowstorm of confetti.” The book culminates with Nixon sobbing over Eisenhower’s death. How do the two events relate?
I don’t do psychoanalysis in the book. [Eisenhower] is loved to death by everybody, including people like Fawn Brodie, who tried to prove that Nixon had a homosexual affair with Bebe Rebozo. I thought it was extraordinary that it begins with this 32 year old Navy lieutenant getting out of the service watching the five-star general coming home, and it ends with this man who, in a very short time—within three years—was going to be a congressman, senator, and vice president. And then at the end, 23 years from then, he himself was president and putting the wreath on the casket of the dead General Eisenhower. In that sense, yeah, they’re really related. There’s this huge gap between who Nixon was and who he became.
The Politic: Why did Eisenhower choose Nixon as his running mate, given his disdain for ambitious politicians? Was it any more than — as you write — a “marriage of convenience?”
Well, he had a disdain for professional politicians. I think it was a given that any professional politician was going to be pretty ambitious. He was fine with Nixon. He didn’t really choose him. He didn’t know anybody. He hadn’t lived in America. He wasn’t familiar with the cast of characters. He had a team of advisors around him that were pretty savvy. One of them was Thomas Dewey, who was then the Governor of New York and had already run for president twice. He would famously lose again in 1948 to Harry Truman. He was not going to run again, and was really pushing hard for Eisenhower. He had gone on Meet the Press in 1950 and endorsed him for president.
Then there was Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who was a senator from Massachusetts. Lodge was about to face reelection in the fall against Congressman John F. Kennedy. He was going to lose, but he was a pretty good politician. And then a guy named Herbert Brownell, who had been the campaign manager with Dewey. All these guys were really pushing Eisenhower to be a candidate, and they were also giving him recommendations on who he should choose. Ike did not even realize that it was up to him to make the choice. It’s up to the candidate? Yeah it’s up to the candidate! (even though the delegates, of course, have to ratify it). There was a list of people, and Eisenhower was happy with Nixon. He even said in a press conference a couple of years later—Scotty Reston (James Reston), the New York Times reporter and then columnist asked him about precisely your question, and he said, “Well, I had a list of six or seven people, and Nixon was on the list.”
It was a little bit more than that, in truth. Nixon had certain things going for him. He was a well-known Red Hunter. The communist issue was big then. Joseph McCarthy had made what was a famous speech in Wheeling in February of 1950, in which he made up the idea that there were 205 communists in the State Department. The red issue was going strong. And Nixon was young. Eisenhower was only 62 years old—he was the same age Hillary Clinton was four years ago—but he seemed much older than Hillary Clinton. And Nixon was a westerner. That counts a lot too. It balanced the ticket. Most importantly, Nixon was an internationalist. Although he has been associated with the conservative movement and the Republican Party, the conservative wing then was sort of more isolationist. Nixon was an internationalist. As a Congressman, he was very much in favor of the European Recovery Act—the Marshall Plan. That was very important to Eisenhower.
The Politic: Why, then, did Eisenhower try to dump Nixon off the ticket multiple times?
There were different circumstances. In the first campaign, Nixon just embarrassed him. One of the themes of the first campaign was “let’s clean up the mess in Washington.” One of their posters said, “Let’s Clean House with Ike and Dick.” The mess in Washington referred to all these scandals. The Harry Truman administration, whose popularity was very low, was surrounded by scandals; there was sleaze and cronyism. Truman was totally identified by this. No one said Truman himself was dishonest, but people around him were (there were some 5 percent kickbacks on government contracts). There was a certain phase where it was part of the language in 1952. “Five percenters,” mink coats. When news came out that Nixon had a secret fund, and this is the story of September of 1952, it really was a huge embarrassment for Eisenhower, who had said “we must clean the house.” He really wanted him gone.
What saved Nixon was that Eisenhower really did not like confrontation. He was not about to tell Nixon simply to get off the ticket. He wanted Nixon to resign on his own, and all kinds of hints were given that Nixon chose not to listen to. Nixon had a chance to go on national television to give a speech which I’m sure you know about, the famous Checkers Speech. What really annoyed Eisenhower was that before he gave the speech, Nixon was told by Thomas Dewey, the same Thomas Dewey who I mentioned earlier, that “when you finish giving your speech and explaining all your finances and where your money came from, the people around Eisenhower think you should resign.” Nixon said, “What does Eisenhower think?” Dewey was not going to tell him “Eisenhower wants you to resign,” but he said there was a general feeling that he should resign. Nixon was completely speechless. Dewey went on to say, “And furthermore, it might be smart after you resign to then resign your seat in the senate. You could run in a special election and be a hero after you win.” Nixon’s response was basically “well you wait and see what I’m going to do,” knowing full well that he was not going to resign the ticket. That was the first time. He did not resign; he triumphed. He really annoyed Eisenhower by going to the Republican National Committee, thereby circumventing Eisenhower, and Eisenhower was stuck with him whether he liked it or not.
Four years later, it was a completely different thing. Eisenhower simply wanted to replace him on the ticket for reasons that are not entirely clear today. Eisenhower told him he wanted to help him; he wanted to get him managerial experience. He offered him a cabinet post. He said, “Why don’t you become Secretary of Defense?” He offered him a couple of other jobs. Of course, he did want Nixon to go. He really wanted to get a guy named Bob Anderson in as his replacement. There were meetings on it between Eisenhower and the Republic National Committee chair, Leonard Hall, that were taken down almost verbatim by Eisenhower’s executive assistant. Eisenhower told Hall to tell Nixon that he’s off the ticket, but to be very gentle about it. It was never done in such a way that Nixon thought he had to leave the ticket. Nixon, again, pulled it off. He did it by getting himself on the ballot as a write-in candidate in New Hampshire, even though he wasn’t running for anything in 1956, and he pulled in a lot of folks. It was a reminder to Eisenhower that the Republican base up there liked Nixon. He survived.
The Politic: During Nixon’s own run for president, Eisenhower was asked what idea of Nixon’s he had adopted. Eisenhower famously responded, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” To what extent does this speak to their relationship?
Eisenhower said some nice things about him first. He was asked about his role and said, “I value his advice; he goes to meetings a lot.” But then Charles Mohr of Time Magazine said to him, “Can you think of a major idea of Vice President Nixon that you’ve adopted?” And Eisenhower said, “Well give me a week and I’ll think of one.” The press conference haunted Nixon. It stayed with him afterward. It was devastating. Jack Kennedy used it in his campaign ads. In the first debate, a reporter asked Nixon about it. It even came up in 1968. It was devastating. Who knows why he said it. Eisenhower claims he hadn’t quite realized what he was saying. He told one aid, “I wish I had never used that damn quote.” At that point, Eisenhower was holding press conferences every week. So he said “give me a week.” It literally meant that.
If you read the press conference, it was a weird press conference. They were asking all kinds of questions. They were jumping around; Nixon was just a small part. They even were asking Eisenhower about the postwar conference in Potsdam in 1945, so it was a very jumbly press conference. But Eisenhower was also very annoyed at that point by Nixon. Nixon had begun referring to the Eisenhower-Nixon administration as if it were one, and of course it was the Eisenhower administration. Then Nixon went on to Jack Paar. Jack Paar was the NBC late night guy who came before Johnny Carson. He tried to explain it by saying Eisenhower’s the president—he makes the decisions—and he hoped it would go away, but it never went away. In fact, it took the rest of his life.
The Politic: Did Nixon ever turn to Eisenhower during his campaign for support or advice?
You mean in 1960 or in 1968? They were very different. In 1960, Nixon didn’t want Eisenhower to step in, I was told by one of Eisenhower’s aides. Nixon wanted to win it on his own. And then there was also a question whether Eisenhower’s doctor had called Nixon—or maybe Mamie Eisenhower had called Pat Nixon—and basically said, “Please, please don’t get him out on the campaign trail too much because we worry about his health.” Eisenhower had had a major heart attack in 1955, he had a major gastrointestinal operation in 1956, and he had a stroke in ’57, so they were worried about his health.
Eisenhower definitely wanted Nixon to win, but he also was not enthusiastic about him. What he did have a strong opinion about was Kennedy, for whom he basically had contempt. He thought he was a young whippersnapper—these are my words, not Eisenhower’s.
In 1968, it was very different. Eisenhower was on his deathbed, and Nixon was an older, wiser candidate and also a bitter candidate. He really was angry about the 1960 loss. He thought it had been stolen from him. Eisenhower endorsed him relatively early because of the marriage between the two families.
The Politic: Did the romance—and future marriage—between David, Ike’s grandson, and Julie, Dick’s daughter, add a little romance to the old men’s relationship?
Sure. I wouldn’t use the word romance. David was going to Amherst in 1966, and Julie was going to Smith. They’re only seven miles apart. They got together, and they fell madly in love. Everybody just was charmed by Julie. Julie is not like her father. Her father was stiff and awkward and uptight—people don’t take to him, as I’m sure you know, even though there are people who are very, very fond of him. People take to Julie right away. Someone told me once that if it hadn’t been for her father’s problems—Watergate—she would have ended up being governor of Pennsylvania. Julie charmed the Eisenhower family.
In that sense, if there was ever tension between Eisenhower and Nixon, it was helped some simply by the presence of Julie. I’m totally convinced of that based on everything I’ve heard. But I would say there wasn’t any romance, and I would say that Eisenhower never really liked Nixon. He didn’t dislike Nixon. One of Eisenhower’s longtime aides put it pretty well when he was interviewed a couple years after he left the administration; he told John Osborne of The New Republic that Ike was not fond of Nixon. I think that was a pretty good summary of how he felt. There was never really romance between them, but that doesn’t mean that Nixon wasn’t devastated by Eisenhower’s death.
The Politic: Despite Eisenhower’s coolness towards Nixon, Nixon remained a loyal soldier to his general. This marked a departure from many past president-vice president relationships, such as that of Roosevelt and Truman. Was this a turning point in the progression of the role of the vice president?
Yeah, I would say that Nixon reinvented or invented the idea of the modern vice president. After Roosevelt was nominated, they had one lunch together and Roosevelt never saw him again before he died. The idea that Truman was being groomed for the presidency, or Henry Wallace before him, or John Garner, was preposterous. It was ridiculous. Roosevelt never saw those people as presidents. As you well know, Truman didn’t have a clue what was going on in the Roosevelt administration. He had no idea about the atomic bomb.
Eisenhower, to his credit, made sure Nixon was pretty well up to speed with everything. He would chair the meetings when Eisenhower wasn’t there; he sent him on trips around the world; he tried to include him. That doesn’t mean he wanted Nixon to step in and act as president if he wasn’t around, but he did want Nixon to know what was going on. There were really not many secrets. When they had to make major decisions on developing an inter-continental ballistic missile in the mid ’50s. Nixon was in on that. It was inconceivable that Harry Truman would have had anything to do with a decision like that.
The Politic: Nixon was one of the most prominent supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, putting him at odds with his president and even Lyndon Johnson, the Senate majority leader. In his own bid for president, though, Nixon employed an early form of the racially tinged “Southern Strategy,” and Johnson was later the one to strike up the civil rights fight. What does the Southern Strategy say about the Republicans’ relationship with the south today?
The Eisenhower administration supported the Civil Rights Act; Eisenhower was just not very fond of Brown v. Board of Education. But it’s interesting. The Republicans were the civil rights party in the ’50s. Eisenhower got 40 percent of the African American vote in 1956. Nixon in 1960 got 32 percent and that was even though he hadn’t come to the aid of Dr. Martin Luther King, with whom he’d been friendly—very friendly—for years. When King was arrested on a totally phony charge in the south, the Kennedy campaign did come to his support. I think it’s pretty clear that Nixon actually would have won the presidency if he had done so; he would have won a couple more states.
Then in 1964, Barry Goldwater ran. The Republicans maybe got 4 percent, 5 percent, of the Black vote, and that pattern has been pretty much intact. Goldwater, who was no racist by the way, really did sort of invent the Southern Strategy for the Republicans, and Nixon was happy to keep it up in 1968. He was willing to trade the black vote for a stronger output of the white vote. Whether it was a racially tinged campaign or not, I don’t know. It was a really nasty campaign, and I would say the issue was interpreted as being anti-black, but Nixon always did the right thing in terms of supporting these issues.
Unlike George H.W. Bush or Berry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, Nixon supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Nixon administration was pretty good about desegregating schools. But it was a nasty campaign. It was also a really nasty time in this country. The Vietnam War was going, we had these horrible assassinations, and the race issue was certainly all over the place, and Nixon was using the busing issue, but I would say that his view on civil rights and his view on opportunity stayed pretty much intact through all this time, although certainly his tone changed. Not for the better.
The Politic: If Eisenhower hadn’t died two months into Nixon’s presidency, would Watergate have happened?
I say one wonders whether it would have if the patriarch had lived. Personally, I have my doubts as to whether it would have happened, only because they talked. Nixon would talk to Eisenhower, even when he was on his deathbed in Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. Eisenhower stopped calling him Dick. He would have said, “Mr. President, what are you doing? What’s going on?” And I have to wonder whether Nixon might have had second thoughts about how this was all appearing. Eisenhower’s brother Milton said to someone, “I’m glad my brother didn’t live to see the things this man did.” If he had lived, that man might not have done those things. I love counterfactual history, but I can’t write it. All I can do is guess.