Monday, February 25, 2013

Opposites ("Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage" by Jeffrey Frank)

Over the last five months, I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, her massive volume on Lincoln's inclusion of political foes in his presidential cabinet, one chapter at a time. In that same time, I've begun and finished a few dozen other books, usually in one or two sittings, and almost always with ease...but Goodwin's tome remains unconquered on a table in my living room, the bookmark creeping every slowly from front cover to back. The reason it's taken so long is not because I don't find the book interesting; in reality, the book is too interesting: Goodwin's level of research and detail is exhausting, with each chapter saturated by first- and secondhand sources, and the 1000-page story actually ends on page 750 or so, leaving the last quarter to a small-font collection of notes and sources. To read a chapter is to find yourself dropped into ten different books unto themselves--about events, figures, laws, debates, ideas--all of which are brought together with such expert skill, such fluid narrative ease, that the mind feels over-nourished to the point of intellectual gluttony after only 20 or 30 pages. It's a beautiful feeling.

Perhaps it's because of that over-nourishment, which has kept me coming back to the book over 5 long months, that makes it hard to enjoy Ike and Dick, Jeffrey Frank's account of the relationship between President Dwight Eisenhower and his vice-president, a senator and future commander-in-chief himself, Richard Nixon. Where Goodwin's study of Lincoln and his cabinet has lasted almost half a year, I began Frank's book on a Thursday night and finished it two days later, as the Saturday evening was giving way to Sunday morning. This is a compliment to the author, but even before that first sitting had ended, I was worried: Ike and Dick, itself far from skimpy at 400 pages, was too easy. Yes, the story of these two men was written with the fluidity of a well-paced novel--another compliment to the author--but didn't challenge my mind in the way Goodwin's book--and all historical books--should. In fact, Frank's book seems like it should be twice as long and three times as thorough. Instead, his interest in this topic--and his belief in telling the story well--seems to have undermined his duty to report as much as he can about these two men so that we may better understand not only their own lives and relationships, including with each other, but also recognize how important they both were to the times in which they lived and served.

Take Richard Nixon, for example. There's little if any information about Nixon's accomplishments in Congress outside of his rabid fight against Communism, which culminated in the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury, even though he served in that body . Was his relative success at Red-baiting his only true appeal for the Eisenhower campaign and the Republican Party? It certainly wasn't the only issue he focused on. After all, he voted to limit the power of unions (Taft-Hartley Act of 1947; co-sponsor Robert Taft plays an important part in Eisenhower's rise); helped pass the Marshall Plan, which rescued post-WWII European countries and is one of the most important humanitarian programs our country has ever undertaken; supported illegal immigration during the Communist hysteria; and supported, albeit half-heartedly at times, civil rights for African-Americans, which should have been given more attention that it is considering how important civil rights became to the presidencies of both men. Besides his legislative achievements, there is the opposite side of Nixon--his vices, his failings, his torturous mix of vicious egotism and saddening self-consciousness--that never seems to appear, except in one or two small mentions of his alcoholism (and a hint that, after he is defeated in his run for California governor, he struck his wife, as he was known--Frank tells us--for sometimes lashing out violently.) By skimping on details about Nixon and his place in American politics before becoming vice-president, Frank misses an opportunity to contrast this young, flawed, dog-faced lawmaker with the older, more experiences war hero--two men from completely different paths who will, in 1952, become the two most powerful men in the country.

In truth, the first Eisenhower administration is portrayed mostly as one of distance and suspicion between Eisenhower and his vice-president, who is utilized mostly to do much of Eisenhower's dirty work, which includes dealing with Nixon's former colleague Senator Joe McCarthy. (Frank doesn't go into much detail about this, either, though one suspects it's more or less because Nixon--much like everyone else--had very little influence over a man who was becoming increasingly devoured by a creature of his own making.) It isn't until the second administration, when Eisenhower's health begins to catch up with him, that we see Nixon become an impressive, caricature-defying figure. Along with the president's cabinet, he takes charge of the leaderless situation, ensuring decisions are made thoughtfully and with considering for the president's wishes; he does not make a grab for power, as some expect he will, and even in making the decisions with the cabinet, he is deferential to their opinions over his own. In doing so, Nixon demonstrates a diplomacy and demeanor that changes the perceptions of not only those around him but large swathes of his detractors, who finally see him as having the skills and disposition necessary to being presidential. It also seems to sway Eisenhower, who wasn't exactly a fan of Nixon to begin with, though their relationship will remain cordial and distant for the rest of their time together.

Where Frank finds a worthy subject--and where the book finds its strongest footing--is in the years after Eisenhower's presidency, when both men are gone from politics: Eisenhower will never run for political office again and pass away in less than a decade, during which time Nixon will mount a failed campaign for California governor and move back to practicing law. Suddenly, neither man is tethered to a need for public and private facades; they speak honestly, write with personal depth, and understand the roles they play in one another's lives. As Frank notes, Eisenhower was suddenly an ex-president, and Nixon's connection to politics was his connection to politics; without his former vice-president, Eisenhower was destined to be forgotten in a fast-paced and tumultuous world consumed by civil unrest and war.

At the same time, Nixon sees a man who stands for everything he wants to be--loved, revered both nationally and internationally, respected enough for others to carry out his dirtier political requests without hesitation--but one who will not let him into his inner circle of friends. To Nixon, Eisenhower is that object in the distance he can never reach, whether it be the presidency--an easy but unsteady analogy, I should say--or simply the approval of the masses, the lack of which acts as an unending source of pain. (Eisenhower, on the other hand, never seems without that approval, even during his most controversial and divisive decisions, such as sending the National Guard to Little Rock to enforce desegregation.) By staying close to Eisenhower, Nixon not only guarantees his support for future political races but also the chance to study him more, to understand how Eisenhower can do so much for himself by doing so little.

At the end of the book, Frank wonders out loud how Nixon would have behaved as president had Eisenhower lived through his presidency. (He dies on March 28, 1969, a little more than two months after Nixon begins his first term.) Would the presence of this man, whose opinion and approval meant so much to Nixon, have changed the way he conducted himself and handled the country's most pressing issues, knowing full well he was being watched so closely? Or would the trajectory of history remained the same, Nixon's demons--almost none of which are explored here--taking him over slowly under the ambrosia of power? It's difficult to say, and anything beyond shallow speculation does a disservice not only to history but the people who lived it. All we know is that, had these two men never met--had Eisenhower run with someone else, had Nixon stayed in Congress, or run on his own volition as a stand-alone candidate for president--we would have been robbed of a political relationship--a friendship, you could argue, between two men with different ideas about what friendship actually meant--that stands as one of the strangest, most unique, and most rewarding in modern history.