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Dick and Ike: Nixon and Eisenhower celebrate their nomination at the Republican National Convention in 1952 (©Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)


The thing about “archive rats”, to borrow Stalin’s useful insult, is that they unearth facts that unsettle the authorised version of history. It’s a label that Nixon scholar Irwin Gellman can wear with pride. He has been burrowing in the archives for decades in obvious places (the National Archive, the Nixon Library), overlooked places (the Cabot Lodge papers), and in places (he none too subtly implies) that other historians could not be bothered to inspect — every one of the approximately 845 boxes of the “largest part of the Nixon manuscripts, called the 320 series”. 

The result is The President and the Apprentice, a somewhat obsessive, intriguingly contrarian retelling of the story of Nixon and the Eisenhower presidency. Traditionally, Eisenhower’s time in office has been regarded as a wasted opportunity, only partly redeemed by the supposed disdain he felt for his vice-president, Richard Nixon. More recently, academics have been re-rating Ike (it probably helped that doing so made his Republican successors look bad) but that re-rating has yet to percolate through to a popular consensus still shaped by dim memories of high-school history lessons and, more vividly, media depictions of Eisenhower’s America as a land that progress forgot.

Nixon has also benefited, to a degree, both from the attention of revisionist historians and the passing of the decades since his disgrace. His funeral was attended by President Clinton and all his surviving predecessors (Clinton was representing, he declared, “a grateful nation”). For all that, to most Americans Tricky Dick remains a President Evil, snarling while he plots dark deeds and incriminating tapes whir. He has never been forgiven by liberal opinion-formers for his role in exposing the traitor Alger Hiss (“vindicated” again, I note, in a book published last autumn).  Nor have they forgiven him for his style — or styles, all those “new Nixons” — for his abrasiveness, his awkwardness, his embarrassingly obvious striving and, worst of all, for a series of election victories that announced that America was more like him than them.

Even those historians willing to look beyond the standard caricatures of this complicated man’s complicated career have struggled to put Nixon’s relationship with Eisenhower in a positive light, something that Mr Gellman, previously the author of The Contender, an account of Nixon’s Congressional career, sets out to correct. This is no hagiography; it is a scholarly work, but a combative one too. Reinforced by what he has mined from all those archives, Gellman debunks myths, he challenges the comfortably liberal narrative, and when people have lied he says so. Nixon was brought down by his lies, but to no small extent his reputation has been trashed by the lies of others. To take just one: No, Mr Truman, he didn’t call you a traitor.

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