In new book, David Eisenhower, wife Julie mine memories of Ike's twilight years
Monday, November 15, 2010
In 1969, Richard Nixon was eager to spend time at the Catoctin Mountains retreat reserved exclusively for the fraternal order he had just joined: U.S. presidents. His daughter Julie accompanied him as he whisked into the secluded sylvan enclave, where a jarringly simple sign announced their arrival in "Camp 3."
What happened to "David"? The disappearance of that name erased a dictate of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the GOP general Nixon had served as vice president. It was also a dismissal of the tribute Ike had paid to his grandson, whom Julie Nixon had just married. "I tell ya -- within one hour, they found the shed," Julie recalls over coffee one afternoon with her husband at their suburban Philadelphia home. "My dad got the sign back up." There would be no doubt when future visitors arrived: This place was Camp David.
Nixon's gesture further sealed a unique bond between two presidential families that are still linked four decades later in America's collective memory as a love-locked dynasty. American presidents come and go, but the fascination with their family trees endures. The presidential family diaspora carries with it many obligations, perceived and unperceived, imposed and organic. There are kin who buff legacies and kin who stain them. There are kin who demand attention and kin who disappear.
And then there are the archivists, the accumulators of arcana and tidbits, a particular breed of presidential kin that gathers and collates, often as part of a very public exercise in trying to understand the very non-public selves of their unknowable forebears. These days, David Eisenhower -- a Pulitzer finalist for his 1986 book, "Eisenhower at War" -- and his wife aspire to be this last kind of presidential kin. Julie chimed in three years ago with the book, "Pat Nixon: The Untold Story." And now she has collaborated with her husband in a reminiscence about Ike's retirement years, the just-released "Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life With Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 to 1969."
David Eisenhower, now director of the Institute for Public Service in the school of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, chats breezily in the living room of the couple's snug rancher set off the road in a thickly wooded area outside Berwyn. In the study, he shows off a baseball signed by Babe Ruth and bubbles enthusiastically about watching Dave Righetti throw a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July 1983 with his father-in-law in George Steinbrenner's box -- the son-in-law asked Nixon to sign his program, the only time he ever asked him for an autograph.
Eisenhower, a bookish 62-year-old with a soft, round face and a welcoming manner, bonded over baseball with both his future wife and his father-in-law. He played APBA, a dice-driven board game, with her when they were courting; he compiled lists of the greatest players at each position with the former president. Games delight and distract in glory times and in moments of crisis. David's best friend, former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, remembers playing whiffle ball with his pal on the White House tennis court when Nixon was president and relaxing over the board games Diplomacy and Risk at David and Julie's Washington apartment in the midst of Watergate.
Julie gets coffee in a kitchen where the refrigerator looks like a typical grandparent's -- covered with photos of children on magnets. But look closer, and you'll double-take. Why, there's a magnetized picture of Richard Nixon. Not President Richard Nixon but Julie's "daddy," with his then-2-year-old granddaughter, Melanie. "She looks like me," says Julie, now a slender 62-year-old mother of three and grandmother turned out fashionably in a fitted pantsuit.
The daughter says she has never seen the movie "Nixon," never read the "negative things." Julie and David both say they've never heard the song "Fortunate Son," Creedence Clearwater Revival's Vietnam-era hit that lead singer John Fogerty has said was inspired by the perception that David Eisenhower received privileged treatment during the war because of his family connections. The title rankles, ever so slightly, they say, because Eisenhower served two years on a guided-missile cruiser while in the Navy Reserves, though he didn't see combat. Nixon advised him to join the reserves, rather than the Army, and he took his competency test in the White House, Eisenhower recalls.
In the living room, Julie ushers me over to two cushiony upholstered chairs. "Sit in my dad's," she says. "Mom always liked comfortable furniture."
The couple is there to chat about their Eisenhower book, but they are surrounded by memories of Julie's parents that only they could recognize as memories. A long antiquey table against the wall; a framed lacquer image of a deer given to Richard and Pat Nixon during a 1950s goodwill trip they made to Vietnam at the request of President Eisenhower. The furniture came to David and Julie as the Nixons downsized to their last residence, a townhouse in New Jersey. "We really lucked out in that move," Julie observes.
Midway through the conversation, she brings over a wood carving of Camp David, a gift to her father by a U.S. serviceman stationed in Vietnam. "Look," she says, flipping it over to show off a piece of paper held on by peeling Scotch tape: "For the president of the United States," it reads.
She considers it, then says, almost to herself: "I've got to get some more Scotch tape."