In my write-up today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician, I’ll talk some about Richard Nixon’s relationship with Dwight Eisenhower. This will be based on what I have read so far in Ambrose’s book, however, not what I haven’t read yet.
In Ambrose’s narration, Nixon early on believed that Eisenhower was the Republican candidate who could win the Presidency in 1952, but, as a Californian, he had to support California Governor Earl Warren for the Republican nomination. Nixon got considered for the running-mate slot because he impressed former Republican Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey with a speech that he gave.
Nixon was accused of having a slush fund from the donations of wealthy California Republicans, which Nixon allegedly used for personal comforts and luxuries. On some level, Ambrose thinks that Nixon brought abuse on himself because he paraded himself as a champion against corruption, even hints of moral impropriety. But, ultimately, Ambrose regards the charges against Nixon as groundless, for Nixon led a Spartan lifestyle, there was no evidence that Nixon gave political favors for gifts, and the money was for campaign purposes, not personal luxuries. When Murray Chotiner, who worked for Nixon, noticed that Democratic candidate for President Adlai Stevenson was not adding his voice to the chorus of those accusing Nixon of the slush fund, Chotiner speculated that Stevenson must have a slush fund of his own and did not want to draw attention to it. It turned out that Chotiner was correct!
There was speculation that Eisenhower would drop Nixon from the ticket. Nixon wanted for Eisenhower to just make up his mind, and he told Eisenhower to either shit or get off the pot! According to Ambrose, Eisenhower was used to cuss-words—-he was friends with people like George Patton, after all! And yet, Eisenhower wasn’t accustomed to being talked to in that manner by people he considered to be subordinates. He put up with it from Nixon, however, for Nixon had a lot of political clout. Nixon was Eisenhower’s connection with the conservative Old Guard Republicans, who were open to letting the Democrats win in 1952 rather than voting for Eisenhower. The Old Guard liked Nixon because he was rather conservative and talked tough against the Democrats. Eisenhower had to get used to not being completely in charge, for the world of politics was not entirely like his time as a general in World War II!
Nixon would give a widely-watched televised speech in which he would explain his finances to the American people. Eisenhower’s aides wanted Nixon at the end of the speech to offer to resign, but Nixon instead closed the speech by telling people to express their opinions to the Republican National Committee. In his speech, Nixon meticulously detailed his finances, admitted that his family did accept one gift (a dog named Checkers, and, in Ambrose’s narration, Nixon here was following in the footsteps of FDR, who appealed to his dog for political purposes), said that all of the candidates should be open about their finances (and, according to Ambrose, Eisenhower’s pencil broke when Eisenhower heard that!), and vowed to keep on fighting Communists and corruption. The speech was especially popular with Nixon’s supporters. Some identified with Nixon’s “used car and his mortgages and his wife’s cloth coat” (page 239). I especially liked something that Ambrose said on page 289: “Lucius Clay thought the speech ‘the corniest thing I ever heard’; he later said he realized he was wrong ‘when I saw the elevator operator crying.'” In a sense, the speech was a success, and yet Republicans never appealed to it after that point, and Democrats tended to mock it.
Eisenhower said that he admired the fighting spirit that Nixon showed in that speech, but Eisenhower wanted to make clear that the final decision about whether Nixon would remain on the ticket rested with him (meaning Eisenhower). Nixon somewhat resented this, but he met with Eisenhower, and Nixon said that Eisenhower was refreshing in light of Truman’s tendency to stand by his corrupt friends and appointees, without knowing whether they were guilty or not. Eisenhower, after all, wanted to know the truth about the accusations against Nixon before he kept Nixon on the ticket! According to Ambrose on page 294, however, some of this was show on Eisenhower’s part:
“Eisenhower played his own role in the charade. He pretended that he would be an objective judge in determining Nixon’s fitness to serve as Vice-President, which was obviously absurd. Eisenhower was not above milking the thing for all the drama it could hold either, as he managed to create an atmosphere of high stakes and great suspense around the television appearance: Would the idealistic young senator from the West prove his innocence? Could he convince the general, world famous for his Solomon-like wisdom, that it was his accusers, not he, who were cheats, liars, and crooks? But the truth was that Eisenhower no more needed convincing on these questions than he did on the cost of Nixon’s home furnishings.”
I got a chuckle out of the “Solomon-like wisdom” part!
Eisenhower both admired and also had problems with Nixon, sometimes for the same reasons. He admired Nixon’s toughness and outspokenness. And yet, Eisenhower was much more moderate and conciliatory to Democrats than Nixon was, and Eisenhower did not want to alienate Democrats too much because he felt that he had to work with them. Nixon learned to live with Eisenhower’s rules.
After Eisenhower became President, Nixon was helpful to Eisenhower because Nixon had years of legislative experience, and Nixon knew how Presidents could effectively work with the Congress. But Nixon had no administrative experience, and so Eisenhower made Nixon the chairman of the President’s Committee on Government Contracts. This office dealt with discrimination in government contracts. I liked what Ambrose said on page 308: “When Governor Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina called the President to protest some of the committee’s activities, Eisenhower knew that Nixon was on the right course.”