Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage

By Jeffrey Frank Simon & Schuster. 434 pp. Paperback, $18

Former Washington Post writer and editor Jeffrey Frank opens “Ike & Dick” with a description of Richard M. Nixon joining the 4 million New Yorkers who cheered Gen. Dwight Eisenhower as his motorcade toured the city in 1945, at the conclusion of the war in Europe. This prologue — putting Nixon among the vast throng worshipfully hailing the hero who directed the Normandy invasion and led the Allied war effort against Germany — aptly sets the stage for a compelling and enlightening account of one of the most important and complicated political relationships in postwar U.S. history.

Their partnership began in 1952, when Eisenhower secured the Republican presidential nomination and chose the young senator from California as his running mate. The two made an unlikely pair. Eisenhower was cool, aloof and unaccustomed to the rough-and-tumble of politics, while Nixon was a brooding loner and ambitious partisan who achieved national prominence (or notoriety, depending on one’s viewpoint) for his anti-communist investigations and rhetoric.

‘Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage’ by Jeffrey Frank. (Simon & Schuster)

The first test of their relationship came soon after the Republican convention when the New York Post reported the existence of a secret Nixon slush fund. Eisenhower’s unwillingness to publicly back his running mate puzzled the press and drove Nixon to distraction. Only after Nixon defended himself by giving his maudlin “Checkers” speech on national television did Ike give the public demonstration of support craved by his vice-presidential candidate. That pattern continued through eight years in office. Nixon, Frank writes, gamely tackled every assignment Eisenhower threw at him, but Eisenhower kept his distance. Ike famously joked at a 1960 news conference that he would need a week to recall a single significant contribution made by Nixon to his administration.

Their relationship continued after Nixon’s defeat in the 1960 presidential election and as he came back to win the presidency in 1968. Throughout those eventful years, Nixon continued to seek Eisenhower’s advice on political and policy questions, but their relationship always remained stiffly formal, even after the marriage of Ike’s grandson, David, and Nixon’s daughter, Julie.

Frank acknowledges the big question raised by his fascinating narrative: whether Nixon might have averted the tragic missteps that ended his presidency if Eisenhower, who died in 1969, had been around to advise him. Frank suggests that Ike’s influence might have kept Nixon from self-destruction. “Nixon could never be sure what Eisenhower really thought of him, but it never ceased to matter,” Frank writes, “and his restive pursuit of Ike’s good opinion remained one of the few constants in an extraordinary life.”

Robert Mitchell