On Political Books

January/ February 2013 An Arranged Marriage

Why Eisenhower distrusted, but needed, Nixon.

By Andrew Rudalevige

In any case, policy specifics are not the focus here, though the reader will certainly get a glancing sense of many of the issues facing the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s. Perhaps we should be grateful that Frank has eschewed yet another pained attempt to psychoanalyze Nixon; but along with the fine-grained description of what each man did, one wishes he might have let his instinct for characterization roam a bit more into the why. The conventional wisdom about Eisenhower, especially immediately after he left office, was that he was a nice man but a bad politician. Today’s scholarly consensus reverses that charge, largely concurring with Fred Greenstein’s 1982 judgment that Ike was not a very nice man but was a very good politician. Frank at times seems to cast a negative vote on both fronts instead—Ike as a nasty naïf, who “as a politician … was still an amateur,” even in 1964—but the weight of the evidence even in the present volume is on the Greenstein side of the scales. The pretense of foreswearing political maneuvering allowed Ike to husband his prestige, hovering above the fray even as what Greenstein called his “hidden hand” worked behind the scenes. Eisenhower’s Army aide Walter Bedell Smith apparently complained to Nixon that Ike always needed a “prat-boy … someone who’d do the dirty work for him,” and Nixon himself called Eisenhower “one of the most devious men I’ve ever met,” quickly adding: “in the best sense of the word.”

For Nixon, though, it’s not clear that word really had a bad sense. If Eisenhower had still been watching, would Nixon have chosen the path to the Watergate? Frank speculates not, but this seems wishful thinking for opportunities lost. It is true that Ike told Bedell Smith in late 1968 that “I know Dick knows what to do. I just question whether he knows how to organize the government to get it done.” But Ike might have been guilty of wishful thinking himself, or of wishing he had done more mentoring of his junior partner while he was still junior. Organization was not, in fact, President Nixon’s problem. Indeed, the structure of his White House (and the managerial monochrome of his Cabinet) resembled Eisenhower’s far more than it did Lyndon Johnson’s or John F. Kennedy’s, neither of whom had a formal chief of staff. The problem for Nixon, in the end, was not that he couldn’t get things done. The problem was what he wanted to do.

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Andrew Rudalevige is a professor of government at Bowdoin College.