Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Author Interview: Jeffrey Frank discusses his 'Ike & Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage'

Perhaps the most amusing sentence in Jeffrey Frank's book about Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon comes during a discussion of whether and how Eisenhower would endorse Nixon's 1968 bid for the presidency.

Jeffrey Frank
Frank recounts that veteran White House aide Bryce Harlow, who served both presidents, wrote in a memo that "without an immediate statement that Ike, as Harlow phrased it, was 'hot for Dick,' voters might 'be pen to the snide argument that as a good Republican you are only doing what you have to do.'"

It seems to me that were Eisenhower truly "hot for Dick," snide remarks would have been the least of his worries.

Although the idea that any voter or political operative was ever "hot for Dick" is debatable -- in the sense that Dick Nixon lacked the kind of adoring fans that one associates with Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama -- the only president to resign his office continues to fascinate students of twentieth-century history.  Jeffrey Frank followed his own fascination into a book-length examination of Nixon's relationship with a man he worked for and admired, Eisenhower.

The recent paperback release of Ike & Dick: A Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage seems like an appropriate moment to revisit an interview I had with Frank almost a year ago at the Virginia Festival of the Book, which originally appeared on Examiner.com.  (Robert Mitchell reviewed the paperback edition in Sunday's Washington Post.)

President Dwight Eisenhower was “sui generis,” according to biographer Jeffrey Frank, a politician with no equivalent on the current political scene.

Frank spoke about his new dual biography at the 2013 Virginia Festival of the Book, sharing the stage with another Eisenhower biographer, Evan Thomas, to discuss the life and career of the 34th U.S. president.

Following the panel discussion, Frank told me that “we have people like Nixon” today but not like Eisenhower.

“We don't have five-star national heroes running around any more today,” he explained. “They just don't happen. I wish we did.”

Frank's interest in writing about Eisenhower and his vice president and eventual successor, Richard Nixon, was sparked by how he could use their stories to explore the whole of the 20th century.

“It was a way to look at the whole century,” he said. “It was a way to look at these two men who couldn't have been less alike, one of whom was born in 1890 who grew up in Abilene when Civil War veterans were running around town, and one of whom died in 1994 after the Cold War was over.”

Eisenhower and Nixon, he said, were “two totally different men, both of whom became president," whose lives spanned "the whole century." They each also had fascinating personalities.

As he set out on research for his book, Frank explained, “the thing that struck me from the beginning was they never lost touch. Other vice presidents and presidents go their separate ways, even more recent ones. Reagan and Bush didn't have much to do with each other, Clinton and Gore.”

Yet Eisenhower and Nixon “never really lost touch. That was a unique thing” that was partly due to their family connections – Nixon's daughter Julie married Eisenhower's grandson David shortly after Nixon was elected president in 1968, just months before Eisenhower died.

In addition to the family ties, he added, both men were “so deeply engaged in the world” and that engagement “brought them together.”

Asked about his transition from being a journalist – senior editor at the New Yorker and writer for the Washington Post – Frank said that “being a historian is simply being a journalist in long form. I take my facts very seriously.”

Consequently, he explained, “the transition happened very naturally. I was working at the New Yorker and I started doing this and the more I did it the more I realized I couldn't do it justice by having two jobs at the same time so I made a leap. That was the transition.”

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