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‘The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961’, by Irwin Gellman

Robert B. Zoellick

(Financial Times) – In recent decades, scholars have gained a new respect for the administration of Dwight Eisenhower. Once dismissed as an inarticulate and ineffective president who spent more time playing golf than governing, he is now more likely to be studied for lessons in leadership. Yet one part of the old narrative — Eisenhower’s supposedly distrustful relationship with vice-president Richard Nixon — has so far resisted revision. Irwin Gellman’s The President and the Apprentice vigorously sets this right.

Gellman, author of a well-regarded history of Nixon’s congressional years, The Contender (1999), is a prodigious researcher. His new book can be mined for many gems about the American presidency, US policies in the 1950s and the evolution of the cold war after Stalin’s death. He also charts the tides, tensions and treacheries of American politics. Though the weight of Gellman’s 800-page work may be intimidating to general readers, future scholars will need to take account of his evidence.

The author starts with the institution of the vice-presidency itself. He explains how General Ike’s experience of command, combined with his dismay at FDR’s failure to prepare Truman in 1945, led Eisenhower to transform a disrespected office into the full deputy’s role it has become. Eisenhower kept Nixon fully informed about all key policies. Furthermore, the evidence is persuasive about Nixon’s duties as a “forward observer” through foreign travel and liaison with Congress. He chaired the three important weekly White House meetings in Eisenhower’s absence and was point man on critical issues such as civil rights.

The accounts of Nixon’s travel to 54 countries reveal the talents, insights and, on occasion, physical courage of a man who became a shrewd diplomatic practitioner. Even when he looked through the limiting prism of cold war politics, Nixon recognised the force of anti-colonialism and the importance of meeting economic needs. He appreciated the hunger for dignity and respect. A decade before he met Henry Kissinger, it appears that Nixon was wise to the ways of international politics.

Gellman is careful to portray the professionalism of the Eisenhower-Nixon relationship. He points out that Eisenhower “was supremely confident and comfortable making final decisions. He did not intend to share power with Nixon, nor did they ever become intimate friends.” Eisenhower, 62 when he took office as president, was then the oldest man elected to that post, and Nixon, at 40, was the second youngest vice-president. Eisenhower assembled and managed a seasoned team, on which Nixon became a “utility player”.

Eisenhower’s experience with the military and leadership of large organisations also sheds light on questions that have bedevilled historians. For example, his suggestion in 1956 that Nixon become defence secretary for the second term reflected Ike’s perspective that a rising subordinate needed line and executive experience, and that a “command” post would better prepare Nixon for the presidency. Eisenhower did not see that move as the slight that almost all elected politicians would perceive it as being.

Indeed, Eisenhower’s concept of the presidency created both opportunities and dangers for Nixon. Eisenhower eschewed partisanship and valued his political standing — and popularity — as a leader above the fray. But, as Gellman explains, he did not understand the role of party leader and the need to turn out an activist base, especially in Congressional elections. The president struggled to transfer his honed bureaucratic political skills to partisan politics; indeed, Ike used “political” as a pejorative
term, often preceded by “repugnant.” Nixon, by contrast, was a Republican regular who understood party factions and faiths, “the Democrats’ chief adversary and their worst nightmare”. As a commander, Eisenhower accepted casualties — including the political wounds to his deputy as Nixon wielded the partisan sword. As Gellman observes, with foreshadowing: “Nixon’s strengths and weaknesses were magnified in the heat of political campaigning.”

The President and the Apprentice challenges the interpretations of many well-known authors — such as those of Robert Caro in Master of the Senate (2002), on Lyndon Johnson and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Contrary to Caro, Gellman argues that Eisenhower, Nixon and the Republican minority were instrumental to enactment of the first civil rights law since 1875, while Johnson weakened the bill more than was necessary to placate his southern Senate allies.

Near the end of this long book, Gellman laments the way that certain stories — Eisenhower’s “boorish” reply to a question on Nixon’s contribution during a 1960 press conference is one example, for which the president later apologised — have been “passed down from decade to decade because they seemed to confirm what many people wanted to believe”. He explains that such incidents usually happened around election time, when they were blown out of proportion by political opponents to sway voters in heated contests. Here, Gellman’s decades of parsing written records earn him the right to remind other writers that “they are supposed to think critically about their sources”.

Gellman’s next project is a book about Nixon and Kennedy. Given his ability to unearth materials that surprise and challenge the conventional wisdom, I expect we can look forward to a new perspective on this tragic duo and America’s mid-20th-century traumas.

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