History is storytelling that relates to people, places, and events that actually existed at one point in time. Yet, history is still storytelling, so our understanding of history very much depends on who tells the story and why. This means that some stories we had once accepted as history turn out to be as fictional as Star Wars or The Hobbit as we learn more and hear new stories.
The Eisenhower administration (1953-1960) has had its share of stories and histories. After he left office, most historians and much of the public viewed Eisenhower as a kindly but ineffective president (when he wasn’t playing golf). In the early 1980s, Fred Greenstein’s The Hidden Hand Presidency rewrote the narrative by showing that Eisenhower took a very active role in government, but preferred to keep policy deliberations out of the public eye. Eisenhower plotted the downfall of Senator McCarthy and passed the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, but deliberately downplayed or hid his involvement.
Although most historians now hold Eisenhower in high regard, the Eisenhower-Nixon relationship has not undergone a similar reevaluation. According to the conventional wisdom, Ike did not like or respect his vice president. History textbooks will cite Nixon’s infamous Checker’s Speech, the 1956 “Dump Nixon” movement, or Ike’s lukewarm support during the 1960 presidential campaign as signs of their frayed relationship. Our perception is also tainted by the Watergate scandal, as if cordial relations between Ike and Nixon would somehow tarnish the former and rehabilitate the latter.
Irwin F. Gelman’s The President and the Apprentice is revisionist history in the best sense in that it completely upends that conventional wisdom, but does so in a credible manner and based on convincing evidence. Gelman argues that President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon actually had a productive and respectful working relationship. Ike saw Nixon as a skilled politician with potential. More importantly, he trusted Nixon with important assignments, from lobbying Congress on behalf of the administration to representing the U.S. overseas to chairing government civil rights boards. Unlike FDR’s vice president, Nixon’s vice presidency was worth more than “a bucket of warm piss.”
Gelman relies heavily upon Ike’s handwritten notes and correspondence to close friends and family, especially his brother Milton, to reveal Eisenhower’s thoughts on his vice president. These documents are revealing. As Nixon gave his Checker’s Speech live on TV, Eisenhower wrote down words of support and viewed the speech as a success. In his letters, Ike generally told others that Nixon carried out his duties capably and seldom complained about his performance. As a bonus, Gelman includes many of these primary documents in the appendices.
At best, Ike and Nixon complemented each others skills and compensated for each other’s weaknesses. Having come from the Army, Ike was an excellent bureaucratic manager, but knew little – and cared less – about partisan politics. Ike managed to find ways to utilize his vice president, far more so than any of his predecessors. On the other hand, Nixon, who built his reputation in Congress, was keenly aware of the political implications of any action. Nixon often advised Eisenhower and the cabinet on the political implications of the administrations policies.
The Ike-Nixon relationship did suffer some occasional friction, but more because of misunderstanding than because of personal or professional animosity. Ike often failed to appreciate how his actions would be perceived in a political arena. For example, in 1956, Eisenhower famously urged Nixon to take a cabinet appointment rather than seek renomination as vice president. Gelman convincingly argues that to Eisenhower this was not an attempt to “dump Nixon,” but rather a show of support – Ike thought a cabinet post would provide Nixon with management experience and better prepare him for the 1960 campaign. However, Nixon the politician believed that political observers would perceive a cabinet position as a demotion.
Given how dramatically the conventional narrative departed from the history, I wish Gelman had devoted more attention to the process of historiography (or myth-making). It’s quite clear why Democrats resented – and still detest – Nixon. Nixon was a ruthless partisan and an effective campaigner. Less clear is why historians otherwise sympathetic to Nixon and Eisenhower would perpetuate the myth of animosity between the two men. Stephen E. Ambrose, who along with Greenstein led the reappraisal of Eisenhower presidency, alleges that Eisenhower was at best ambivalent towards his running mate. Given Gelman’s evidence to the contrary, one has to wonder why Ambrose make such an accusation in the first place. Are the myths so ingrained that they become truth even to people who would want to believe otherwise?
I’m generally not one to accept relativism in history. I believe we can know – or at least search for – the true story. Not all truth is merely in the eye of the beholder. Yet, Gelman’s work shows that new evidence can dramatically change our perspective even on some of the most scrutinized political figures in our recent past. It also serves as a reminder that what we observe of presidential administrations is often filtered or distorted by our own storytellers, namely the media.
[I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review]