Eisenhower, Nixon, and the Most Awkward Boss-Employee Relationship in the World
The interactions between presidents and their vice presidents have always been among the most interesting employer- employee relationships in the world. Consider the way Al Gore basically pretended Bill Clinton didn't exist during his presidential run, or the sight of President Obama setting his jaw against a mighty wince when Joe Biden told him over a hot mic that Obamacare was a "big fucking deal." Many presidential candidates choose their running mates to compensate for a personal or demographic failing, which often accounts for some awkward relationships later on.
But it doesn't get any more awkward than this: Once upon a time, one of the most popular presidents since George Washington took as his vice president a man who would go on to become one of the most hated figures in American history. Jeffrey Frank's chatty, buoyant new book, Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage (Simon & Schuster, $30), charts the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, from their rushed introduction to Nixon's rise to the White House. Reading it will, at the very least, immediately make you feel good about all your interactions with all your coworkers forever.
Throughout the presidency, Eisenhower was casually dismissive of Nixon, treating him like a child who wasn't ready for the grown-up table. Even as Eisenhower was continually suffering from a parade of heart attacks and a small stroke, and as Nixon was given more opportunities to stand in for the president than just about any other vice president in history, the younger man got absolutely no respect from the elder. The president couldn't even bring himself to endorse Nixon's 1960 presidential run with anything more than a circuitous bit of doublespeak in one of his many press conferences:
"But if anyone is wondering whether I have any personal preference or even bias with respect to the upcoming Presidential race, the answer is yes, very definitely." Yet it took one more question to absolutely corner Ike:
Q: Mr. President... Were you also speaking there of Mr. Nixon?
A: Was there any doubt in your mind?
Q: No, sir. (Laughter)
Making the whole thing even sadder is the fact that Nixon idolized Eisenhower, continuously seeking his approval and treating face-to-face meetings with the president like they were divine interventions. Even when Nixon raged against his boss, he couldn't manage to muster the same kind of scathing, profane fury that he sprayed all over his enemies list.
By the time Nixon became president, Eisenhower was teetering on the edge of death. Despite all the frustrations heaped upon him by the older president, Frank portrays Nixon as almost inconsolable in his grief. Eisenhower was more than a mentor to him—he was a hero and a father figure. Frank wisely leaves supposition out of his biographical sketch, but Ike and Dick does prompt the question of whether a Nixon who received the praise and coaching he desired out of President Eisenhower would have been a more generous president. Ike and Dick leaves the reader with the feeling that something as simple as a more attentive working relationship could have saved the nation from the disaster of an unhinged Watergate-era Nixon.