Richard Nixon was once a young man. To someone my age — I was born midway through his first term in the White House — and, indeed, to anyone who came of age after 1960 or so, this is inconceivable. Sixty-one, bitter and beaten when he finally called it quits, Nixon is frozen in time. It’s hard to imagine him as anything but a weary, haunted figure.
But in 1952 Nixon was the fresh-faced hotshot of the Republican Party, Jeffrey Frank reminds us in his fascinating new book “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage.”
That summer, presidential aspirant Dwight Eisenhower tapped Nixon as his running mate. Why? As one reporter saw it, Ike aimed “to capture the imagination of American youth.” The 62-year-old World War II hero viewed the 39-year-old California senator as a brainy babe in the woods.
This, Frank notes, would become a recurring story line. Shortly after Eisenhower’s inauguration the following year, the New York Times hailed Nixon as a man who boasted “youth, amiability, immunity to fatigue, and a knack for getting on with people.”
He was a likable doofus, perhaps. One time, Eisenhower, “an expert, even obsessive fly fisherman,” Frank writes, “tried to teach the art to Nixon, but the tutoring was not a success — after several tries, Nixon’s hook caught Ike’s jacket.”
In fact, Nixon was neither callow nor unscarred when he became vice president. He’d led an anti-Communist charge in the House of Representatives. He’d run a rough-and-tumble 1950 Senate race. And at a crucial moment in the ’52 campaign, he’d been forced to deliver his famous “Checkers speech,” an address in which he invoked the name of the Nixon family dog while defending himself against charges of campaign-funding shenanigans.
But Eisenhower often seemed to view his second-in-charge as a man-child. At times their partnership “had a filial aspect, though one without much filial affection,” Frank writes. And as Nixon set out on his own, losing his first bid for the White House in 1960 and a run for California governor two years later, he seemed trapped in Ike’s shadow.
“Ike and Dick” is mostly about the latter, largely because Nixon hung around D.C. for so much longer. (Only in passing does Frank touch on Eisenhower’s celebrated military career.) One of the book’s most interesting themes concerns Nixon’s efforts to earn Eisenhower’s public approval. Eisenhower almost booted Nixon as his running mate in 1956, and at first he wasn’t crazy about the idea of his grandson David marrying Nixon’s daughter Julie. In the eight years between his departure from the White House and his death in 1969, Ike often went out of his way to avoid heaping too much praise on his onetime veep.
In 1968 would-be President Nixon eagerly pursued Eisenhower’s endorsement. Ultimately, the 34th president would back the man who would become the 37th. After all, as Eisenhower said of Nixon, “he’s still quite a young man.”
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.