Eisenhower and Nixon: Secrets of an Unlikely Pair

Journalist Jeffrey Frank explores the strange political marriage between Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.

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Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon could not have more different reputations among the American public. The 34th president was widely respected as a World War II hero, and the 37th president is recalled as the symbol of the biggest political scandal in American history. In Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, journalist Jeffrey Frank reexamines the relationship between the two men. Frank spoke with U.S. News about how the relationship between these two political figures affected 20th century history. Excerpts:

What inspired you to look at this relationship more closely?

It's something that's interested me for about 20 years. I was fascinated by these two men; by the idea that by learning about them you could really cover the entire 20th century.

Why did Eisenhower choose Nixon to join his presidential ticket?

In a way he didn't really choose him. There's no one like Eisenhower today. He was a national hero. He was the supreme allied commander who led the Allied Expeditionary Force in the invasion of Normandy. Nixon was an Orange County senator who was best known for Red hunting and the conviction of [Soviet spy] Alger Hiss. So Eisenhower's advisers thought Nixon would be a perfect running mate. He was an internationalist, and he supported the Marshall Plan. It was literally a classic smoke-filled room in Chicago that [resulted in] choosing Nixon.

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What were their biggest political disagreements?

Nixon was always really loyal to Eisenhower in public. One of the few things that leaked out was in 1954 when the French were being driven out of Indo-China—what is now South Vietnam. Nixon wanted Eisenhower to intervene to help the French and gave a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors talking about the possibility of American ground troops. Nixon was forced to amend his remarks. The other big issue that they disagreed on, but not in public and not in their policies, was civil rights. Ike did not like the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and Nixon was completely supportive of it.

Why is Nixon the more villainized president?

Because of Watergate and because of Vietnam. Nixon had a very bad reputation at different periods in his life. The country was also going through complete hell. We'd had two assassinations. We were in the Vietnam War. The number of troops had increased from 16,000 to over 500,000. And then Watergate happened. He had a terrible presidency, even though the first three or four months of his presidency were pretty good.

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Did Nixon's vice presidency bring forth questions about presidential succession?

Very much so. Eisenhower was very concerned about that. At one point, after his stroke, Eisenhower sat down with Nixon and wrote out some ideas about what might happen if he were unable to serve and basically left it in Nixon's hands. And that eventually turned into the 25th Amendment. If a president dies or resigns, the vice president takes over and then he appoints a new vice president.

Toward the end of the Eisenhower presidency, how did the two men regard each other?

At the very end of the presidency, Nixon was very hurt by Eisenhower. In the summer of 1960, someone asked Eisenhower, "Can you think of a major contribution that Nixon has made to your administration?" and Eisenhower said, "Well, if you give me a week I might think of one." [John F.] Kennedy used it against him. People made fun of him. But then, after that, things began to change. They began to socialize. The most dramatic change was in 1966 when Julie Nixon began dating David Eisenhower. They became engaged a year later. And, in '68, at the end of the year, they got married. So they became one family.

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How did the marriage change Eisenhower's and Nixon's relationship?

It changed it a lot. One theory is that Julie Nixon charmed everyone. Everyone just sort of fell for her. She simply won over the Eisenhowers. And that also changed the idea [about Nixon], that anyone who had a daughter this charming couldn't be all that bad.