By Jules Witcover
11:15 AM EDT, June 17, 2013
Just as they say that the poor are always with is, so it is with Richard Nixon, arguably the most tormented American president, who comes back to us in the new book "Ike and Dick" (appropriately subtitled "Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage").
The author, Jeffrey Frank, admirably recalls the awkward relationship between President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the triumphant World War II commander, and his vice president during their eight White House years in the 1950s. Ike comes across as a tolerant and friendly father figure to the brooding and politically intense but ever respectful and almost worshipful Nixon.
The book reviews how Eisenhower sent Nixon off on high-profile trips abroad, the highlights of which were that famously publicized "kitchen debate" in Moscow with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the stoning of the Nixons in their motorcade in downtown Caracas. These and other trips enabled Nixon to advertise himself as a foreign-policy expert.
But the account also underscores that Eisenhower had early doubts about Nixon's maturity for the presidency and how in his fashion he tried to ease him off the Republican ticket in 1956. Nixon's gritty determination not to be pushed aside finally won out. Also related is the thin familial bond forged by the courtship and marriage of Ike's grandson David and Dick's younger daughter Julie that never quite solidified. Nixon later made known that in all those White House years he was never invited to the Eisenhower living quarters there.
Eight years after the Ike and Dick tenure ended, Nixon re-entered the White House with his own choice of a vice president in Gov. Spiro "Ted" Agnew of Maryland. Nixon might have been expected to replicate or even improve on the treatment he received at Eisenhower's hands. Instead, he froze Agnew out of his presidential inner circle, to Agnew's great disappointment and distress.
That inner circle was dominated by "the Germans," Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, plus Henry Kissinger on foreign policy. Agnew was shunted, quite willingly, to the political role as Nixon's Nixon spewing alliterative sarcasm against the president's political critics, Vietnam War protesters and particularly press and television analysts, tagging them as "nattering nabobs of negativism."
In the process, Agnew made himself the darling of conservative Republicans, who never really warmed to Nixon. However, Agnew became such an irritant to the inner circle — Ehrlichman once complained that he "couldn't be programmed to leave a burning building" — that the trio soon was plotting to dump him from the GOP ticket in 1972. Nixon for a time yearned to replace him with Treasury Secretary John Connally, but finally abandoned the notion in the face of a likely Senate confirmation fiasco.
In several conversations caught on the White House tapes, Nixon talked of the possibility of removing Agnew from the direct line of presidential succession by appointing him to the Supreme Court! Cooler heads finally prevailed and it was decided dumping him would unduly aggravate the party's right wing, and he stayed on the ticket.
For a time, as the Watergate affair threatened to imperil the Nixon presidency itself, Nixon articulated on the tapes that Agnew's continued presence as vice president was providing "an insurance policy" against Congressional action to impeach and remove the president himself. As Nixon put it, "No assassin in his right mind would kill me. They know if they did they would wind up with Agnew!"
The problem was soon resolved with the revelation that Agnew as Baltimore County Executive and then as governor took bribes from Maryland contractors for his help in getting state business, and he was forced to resign. A final irony in the whole business was that Nixon himself wound up suffering the same fate as Agnew when his role in the Watergate cover-up was revealed.
What Frank calls "the strange political marriage" of Ike and Dick really paled in comparison to the later one between Dick and Ted. Nixon had the unusual circumstance of playing both roles in the drama, and in the end could not escape the detrimental judgment of history.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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