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.
While The President and the Apprentice leaves a generally favourable impression of the Eisenhower administration, it is not a broad rethink of this already rethought presidency. It is too narrowly focused on the Nixon vice-presidency for that. But Gellman does attempt to address what has become a central criticism of those years: that Eisenhower did too little too slowly to come to the help of African-Americans, at the wrong end of institutionalised racism across the country and, in the South, victims of something very much worse. Nixon, whatever his private thoughts on racial matters (the much later White House tapes do not make pretty listening in this respect), had no time for Jim Crow, segregation, or the petty (and not so petty) viciousness of the racial discrimination of the era. And nor, despite some attitudes that might dismay in 2016 (as a father, he would not have been too happy to discover who was coming to dinner) did Eisenhower, a man, it must be remembered, brought up in turn of the 20th century Kansas. That said, even allowing for a difficult political environment, the duo’s reluctance to make more use of the bully pulpit in support of civil rights must count against them. And their hopes that changing attitudes and improved African-American access to the voting booth would be enough to do the trick were at best wishful thinking.
True to form, Gellman does not let the Democrats off the hook, highlighting what was once in plain sight, but is now often consigned to the memory hole. Democrats did much to obstruct and (in LBJ’s case, for a characteristically calculated blend of reasons) dilute the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first legislation of its kind since 1875. This was a reflection of the priorities of their southern redoubt, as was the unwillingness of many Democrats (including, Gellman points out, both JFK and LBJ) to offer public support for Eisenhower’s decision to send in the army to enforce the integration of Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas.
To be sure, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the military (although it was the Eisenhower administration that essentially implemented it), but, after reading this book it’s hard to deny that Truman, later an opponent of the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters (organised by “Communists”, apparently), and no stranger to the N-word, has been credited too much, and Eisenhower too little, for what they each did to push the US further down the long march to racial equality, an imbalance that, of course, fits all too neatly into the historical perspective of the American Left.
To FDR’s first Veep, “Cactus Jack” Garner, the vice-presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm piss”, but Gellman makes a strong case that Nixon made far more of this unloved position than might have been expected. He was not any sort of co-executive; the Dick Cheney vice-presidency lay far in the future. But he was valued for his contribution to, and coolly objective analysis of, the frequently rough political scene at home (a melée that the grand old general preferred to be seen to soar above, but understood enough about to know — usually — what he didn’t know) and, as the years passed, also for his thoughts on abroad. Nixon was, so to speak, a youthful understudy whom Ike (conscious of how ill-prepared Truman had been when he took over from FDR) felt a patriotic obligation to train, but he was also a real force within the White House, given real jobs to do.
Not unreasonably, Gellman sees this as proof of the faith that, particularly in the second term, Ike put in Nixon: “The president gave assignments to those he trusted, and he trusted Nixon.” That’s true, but, in the case of Eisenhower, cold behind that five-star beam, that word “trust” should be read as conveying a faith in Nixon’s competence rather than anything with more emotional resonance. Gellman backs up his more upbeat take on the relationship between president and vice-president with a series of letters and obiter dicta from Eisenhower signalling the respect and affection the president had for Nixon. Maybe, but they can also be interpreted as pats on the head for a promising young subordinate by a man who knew how to motivate those under him. And Gellman cannot avoid the reality that Eisenhower let Nixon twist in the wind, not once, but twice.
The first time was when, during the 1952 election, a scandal blew up over a fund that had been raised by some Californian businessmen to help the far-from-wealthy Nixon with his senatorial expenses, an arrangement that did not deserve to be labelled as corrupt. A larger, possibly more questionable fund that benefited Adlai Stevenson, the liberal icon running against Eisenhower for the presidency, received rather less coverage: how odd! Eisenhower made clear Nixon was on his own, but even when Nixon had vindicated himself with the brilliantly manipulative “Checkers” speech, still hesitated to stand by his man. The second occasion, four years later, was when Eisenhower effectively made Nixon beg for his slot on the re-election ticket, a position that he had clearly earned, a cruel spectacle that the normally indefatigable Gellman finds “baffling”.
And then, four years after that, there was the moment during a press conference when Eisenhower was asked to cite a major contribution that then presidential candidate Nixon had made to his administration. Ike replied that, given a week, he “might think of one”.
Gellman fillets these incidents with his customary diligence, handily demolishing some of the mythology that surrounds them and adding some detail often omitted from the historical record (for example, Eisenhower promptly apologised for that remark). But, despite Gellman’s best efforts, the sense that something was awry between the two men lingers.
If I had to make a guess (and when it comes to the enigmatic Ike, one can only guess) the key to Eisenhower’s behaviour was partly the sense, not unusual among the great, that no one could be good enough to succeed him. But there was something else at play, and Gellman points to it with his argument that Ike’s leadership style was in peace as it was in war: “he led a team of subordinates, who were expected to go where Ike sent them, be his eyes and ears, provide intelligent and informed advice, deliver his messages, and occasionally become casualties.” They were, therefore, in the end, disposable.
But Nixon hung on.