American history, biographies, book reviews, Dwight Eisenhower, Jeffrey Frank, presidential biographies, Presidents, Richard Nixon
“Ike & Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage” by Jeffrey Frank was published in 2013. Frank is an author and journalist; he was formerly senior editor at The New Yorker and deputy editor of the “Outlook” section of The Washington Post. In addition to “Ike and Dick” he has authored four novels including, most recently, “Trudy Hopedale: A Novel” which was published in 2007.
It has long been observed that politics makes strange bedfellows. This has perhaps never been more true than in the case of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon whose unusual (and often uncomfortable) seventeen-year relationship serves as the foundation for Frank’s work.
This 346 page book is not quite a dual-biography – it fails to provide a thorough review of either of its subjects’ lives and virtually nothing of their respective families. And it is not quite a character analysis. But what it is: a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at this political odd couple which quickly proves penetrating, colorful and eminently enlightening.
Frank’s background as a journalist is immediately clear; his writing is absorbing, colorful and crisp. It is easy to imagine being a fly on the wall as President Eisenhower seeks the opinion of everyone except his vice president (who we know has the answer but is waiting to be called upon), or in Eisenhower’s hospital room in 1968 as Nixon searches awkwardly for a way to ask the former president for his political endorsement.
The book’s first chapter provides a healthy dose of context relating to Eisenhower’s decision to finally run for president; it quickly reaches full speed in the ensuing chapter when this unlikely pair are politically united (at the 1952 Republican convention). The ensuing narrative follows their relationship through the ebbs and flows of Eisenhower’s two-term presidency, Nixon’s “wilderness years” and Nixon’s 1968 presidential win.
One might suspect this book would be evenly divided in its focus and balanced in its portrayal, but this is not the case. The narrative most frequently centers upon Nixon’s life – and sees the world largely from his perspective – with Eisenhower cast as the outsider. And as difficult as it is to imagine Richard Nixon as a sympathetic character, he is essentially portrayed as the victim of continuous small-scale psychological abuse at the hands of a thoughtless, uncaring and unappreciative President Eisenhower.
But while the portrait of an odd-but-virtuous Nixon is somewhat unique, Frank’s depiction of Eisenhower feels anachronistic: Ike resembles the aloof, out-of-touch, vaguely unaware character he resembled before his presidential persona was reassessed decades ago. In spite of the suspicion the author is too fond Nixon, however, most readers will lament the multitude of slights he suffered during his vice presidency…and marvel that this pair tolerated each other as well as they did until heart failure killed Eisenhower in 1969.
Overall, “Ike & Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage” is an engrossing examination of a relationship initially based on convenience (for Eisenhower) and promotion (for Nixon) but which evolved into something far more complicated for each. Readers seeking special insight into their respective lives (or presidencies) will be disappointed. But as a window into two complex and fascinating personalities, and as a way of adding nuance and texture to their conventional portraits, it is often extremely compelling.
Overall rating: 4 stars
Peter in Illinois said:
I did not understand the premise of the book, Eisenhower and Nixon relationship seemed to be healthier than what I know of many other president-vice president relationships that I know of, such as Kennedy and Johnson or Nixon and Agnew or FDR and Truman, but I don’t know. It was a nice review 🙂
The purpose of the book really seems to have been to show how odd the relationship between the two men was and how it influenced Nixon’s career. It is less a book filled with hard-hitting history and almost more a book that will appeal to psychologists (or psychotherapists!) I found it fascinating because it provide texture and nuance to the portraits of Eisenhower and Nixon I was already familiar with.
Peter in Illinois said:
Thank you! 🙂
Hey Steve, there’s a nice essay about the appeal of presidential biographies that appeared today: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/16/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-presidential-biographies.html
Thanks – saw this and although I disagree with a few of the recommendations, I thought it was great for stimulating thought and had a number of great suggestions. I always love articles like this!
Christopher Saunders said:
Irvin Gellman recently wrote a book called The President and the Apprentice which gives a far different view of Eisenhower and Nixon’s relationship. Which might be more compelling if Gellman didn’t devote huge swaths of his text to trashing Jeffrey Frank and other Ike/Dick biographers for not meeting his rigid standards of Nixon sympathy.