As disbelief and recrimination descend into stasis and filibuster, the national Republican party may seek the comfort of less-recent history. Two new books provide it.
Jeffrey Frank's evocative, clear-eyed "Ike and Dick" (Simon & Schuster, $30) is subtitled "Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage." Eisenhower and Nixon were an odder coupling than Felix and Oscar. But they won two landslide elections, in 1952 and 1956.
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The old general who led the Allies to victory in World War II was revered for leadership and heroism. Parades welcomed him home. The young California congressman was known for red-baiting and killer-instinct politics. He attended a parade for Ike.
The two had, Frank observes, "a fluctuating, unspoken level of discomfort." Frank, a senior editor at The New Yorker, says Nixon "could never be sure what Eisenhower thought of him." Eisenhower didn't choose Nixon as a running mate; a "smoky room" of GOP elders did. Ike tried to dump him in each campaign. But he "had no trouble ordering Nixon to undertake some of his nastiest chores." Nixon said he often felt "like a junior officer coming in to see the commanding General."
Frank sharply underscores how both men used each other with considerable success, even though they differed on many issues. Nixon, long before he pursued the resentment-and-race-based "Southern strategy" to court white voters, supported the Supreme Court's school desegregation ruling. Eisenhower, who'd send the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to escort students, was "doubtful" about it and "a little squeamish" over civil rights.
Eisenhower didn't think much about the launch of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik; Nixon understood its importance in preparedness. Eisenhower wanted no part of a war in Indochina. Nixon would have backed the French.
Eisenhower's uncertain health, from heart attacks on, spurred talk of Nixon succeeding him. Eisenhower later said that the GOP had "a lot of darn good men that could be used."
During Nixon's 1960 campaign against John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower was asked if he had adopted any of Nixon's major ideas. Ike famously, and awkwardly, said, "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember." After the loss, Eisenhower wrote to Nixon expressing "my official confidence in you." Near death in 1968, Ike endorsed him. By then, his grandson David had married Julie Nixon.
Following the inauguration, Nixon visited Eisenhower in a hospital. The next month, Eisenhower died. His body would lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Nixon eulogized him. He left and wept.
The tears, Frank writes, are "better explained by Nixon's continuing sadness at never having been admitted to the general's small, rarely expanded circle, the one that he reserved for friends. Nixon was outside that circle even when his daughter became an Eisenhower and now it was closed to him forever."
Watergate ended Nixon's presidency in disgrace. Milton Eisenhower, Ike's brother, said, "I'm glad that the president did not live to see the things that man did." Nixon's own chosen vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned in a kickback scandal. Nixon died in 1994. He wrote several books, including one titled "Leaders." It had no separate chapter on Ike.
While "Ike and Dick" is less about the subjects' influences and policies than their personal connection, Amity Shlaes' "Coolidge" (Harper, $35) definitely covers the 30th president's. This is biography as hagiography.
Shlaes is a trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and directs the Four Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Her life of Coolidge is detailed, informative and meant to convert. She terms him "a minimalist president," "our great refrainer" and a man "thrifty to the point of harshness." Under Coolidge "the federal budget always was in surplus." And she likens him to Ronald Reagan, who put a portrait of Coolidge in his office.
But, that gesture aside, Reagan didn't follow Coolidge's path. Coolidge's zeal for cuts ultimately was shortsighted and ill-timed. Coolidge believed "the national household resembled the family household," a ridiculous proposition the faithful repeat today. And Shlaes blithely notes, "A market correction was due in 1929. Coolidge himself anticipated that drop." And did what?
One of the blurbs on the dust jacket is from budget-slasher Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice-presidential candidate.