Ike and Dick
The war in Europe ended on May 7, 1945, when the chief of staff of the German army came to a small red schoolhouse in Reims, France, headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight David Eisenhower, and signed Germany’s unconditional surrender. Six weeks later, Eisenhower was in Washington for a parade in his honor. Stores and offices were closed and signs said “Welcome Home, Ike!”—the nickname he’d been given by childhood friends, soldiers, and total strangers. A million citizens watched the olive drab motorcade make its way from National Airport to Capitol Hill, where the general spoke to a cheering joint session of Congress.
In Manhattan on the following day, some four million people turned out to see Ike as his open car traveled through the city. They filled the sidewalks and peered from windows, fire escapes, and almost any perch that let one claim a fleeting glimpse. The motorcade—twenty-one cars, including the newsreel brigade—went from the airport across the Triborough Bridge and entered Central Park at East 96th Street. There it made its way through the park where Eisenhower was applauded by thirty thousand schoolchildren lined up along the side of the road; now and then, a supervising teacher, or a nun in a black habit would tell the kids to step back, to get out of the way.
With music provided by the Army band, the parade reached 60th Street and headed down Fifth Avenue, where the crowds grew thicker, pushing against barricades to see the general, a smiling fifty-five-year-old just under six feet tall, who stood and waved, occasionally returning a salute when he spotted men in uniform, some of whom were on crutches or had empty sleeves. At 44th Street, the police department’s band took over from the Army’s, and then, at 23rd Street, the fire department band replaced the NYPD’s. At Union Square, as the caravan turned east and then motored south along the East River Drive, Eisenhower was able briefly to relax. It was a hot day—temperatures were already in the 90s—and when the cars approached the Fulton Fish Market, the sour air started to fill with a mist of ticker tape and torn paper—seventy-seven tons of it, by one account. Eisenhower again rose to his feet and raised his arms to make them look like stiff cornstalks.
One of the spectators was a Navy man, Lieutenant Commander Richard Milhous Nixon, who in his last months in uniform had been assigned to negotiate contract terminations with defense suppliers and, since the first of the year, had been moving around—from Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York, where he happened to be on this June day, on Church Street. He watched the parade from the vantage point of a high window, which gave him an excellent view as the procession moved along lower Broadway. “Maybe I just think it was that way—I was about thirty stories up—but I have the picture that there he came, with his arms outstretched and his face up to the sky, and that even from where I was I could feel the impact of his personality,” Nixon recalled on several occasions. “I could just make him out through the snowstorm of confetti, sitting in the back of his open car, waving and looking up at the cheering thousands like me who filled every window of the towering buildings. His arms were raised high over his head in the gesture that soon became his trademark.” A variation of this—two arms aloft with two fingers held up in victory symbols—would become a Nixon trademark, too.
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Years later, even after all that happened between them, even though Eisenhower frequently made his life miserable, Nixon still saw him as a large historical figure, distant and even unapproachable despite his startlingly friendly smile. When Nixon talked about him to crowds and reporters, his language could veer toward reverence; in moments of ecstatic campaigning, he might refer to him as a man singled out by destiny, the heroic figure of that victory parade. But as Nixon got to know Eisenhower, he came to see a different man: someone who could radiate kindness and bonhomie while acting with cold indifference and even casual cruelty; and someone comfortable with issues of war and peace but far less so when it came to the problems of his own country and the politics of Washington.
On a personal level, Nixon’s early relationship with Eisenhower, who was old enough to be his father, had a filial aspect, though one without much filial affection. He saw the president as someone who rarely appreciated his contributions and as someone used to rapid, absolute obedience. During his eight years as vice president, he often felt “like a junior officer coming in to see the commanding General,” and sometimes a junior officer who had to endure rebukes and snubs, some of them more imagined than real. The journalist and Nixon confidant Ralph de Toledano told a friend, “There were times when I would find Nixon literally close to tears after a session at the White House during which Eisenhower humiliated Nixon.”
Nixon, though, was an attentive pupil. He observed Eisenhower’s responses to international crises and domestic emergencies and saw the value of an orderly, hierarchical White House, the importance of gestures, and the virtues of patience. Some of these lessons would fade, but Nixon absorbed them with the steady focus of an A student, eager to play a larger role in the eyes of a superior who regarded him as a bright synthesizer rather than as a proponent of imaginative views. Eisenhower did not have a high regard for professional politicians, but he valued Nixon’s logical mind and his expressions of loyalty; and after a time, he listened to his opinions on questions ranging from civilian control of space to civil rights. It was understood that Nixon, as a veteran Red hunter, helped to protect Eisenhower from the resentful Republican right; Eisenhower returned the favor by giving Nixon an increasingly useful veil of moderation. Neither man regarded this as a partnership; vice presidents since the time of John Adams traditionally filled a distinctly peripheral role. But by accident as well as design, their association, in and out of office, grew and that helped to shape the ideology, foreign policy, and domestic goals of the twentieth century.
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When Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, he was an elderly sixty-two; the war had worn him down—years of heavy smoking, too much coffee, and nonstop stress. When he selected the thirty-nine-year-old Nixon as his running mate, he relied on his advisers, most of whom he didn’t know well and who hadn’t come up with many choices; in any case, he wasn’t personally acquainted with the potential field. Apart from an occasional stateside visit, he’d been away from America (in Panama as a young officer; in the Philippines as an aide to General Douglas MacArthur; in North Africa and Europe during the war) a lot more than he’d been home. He had met Nixon only twice, and briefly—at a Bohemian Grove summer retreat in the summer of 1950 and in Paris in the spring of 1951, when he was at SHAPE, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. He was aware of all the anti-Communist excitement in the States in which Nixon had played a significant part, but he never recorded an impression of Nixon himself.
On the surface, the two men could not have been less alike. Nixon was a talented speaker, but he often seemed miserable in his political appearances; the journalist Russell Baker saw him as “a painfully lonesome man undergoing an ordeal,” and sympathized with “his discomfort with the obligatory routines of his chosen profession.” As a public man, he knew that he was unloved and sometimes spoke of the pain that cartoonists inflicted (“I’m not exactly amused to see myself pictured as a lowbrow moron,” he said of the Herblock drawings that appeared with some regularity in the Washington Post). The aspect that so delighted caricaturists—the close-set eyes, dark, heavy brows, what Garry Wills called his “spatulate nose”—were all the more striking in contrast to those of Eisenhower, who had an expressive, mobile face (his skin turned dark red when he was angry) and that dazzling grin—a spectacular display of surface warmth. Ike’s appearance sometimes seemed to change as new thoughts occurred to him, which made him seem, as the military historian B. H. Liddell Hart observed, spontaneous and transparently honest.
Despite that surface candor, though, Eisenhower was as private a man as Nixon, and sometimes an intimidating man. Many were struck by his eyes—“those cold blue laserlike eyes,” an early campaign volunteer recalled. When he got angry, his longtime aide Bryce Harlow said, it was like “looking into a Bessemer furnace.” Those moments passed quickly; what was far more difficult was being subjected to his chilliness when, as Harlow put it, “those blue eyes of his turned crystal cold.” Nixon sometimes felt that unsettling chill, even when nothing was said. He came to realize that the president might refer to him in embracing terms—“We are very close. . . . I am very happy that Dick Nixon is my friend”—just as he was aiming ...