The President and the Apprentice. Nixon during the Eisenhower years.


What would have happened had Richard Nixon defeated John F. Kennedy for President in 1960? Irwin F. Gellman reveals the possibilities in his new study The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961 (Yale University Press).

Based on his assessment of government documents, Gellman protrays Nixon as a key deputy to President Eisenhower, neither a colleague nor a surrogate son, but a trusted aid, special envoy, and political advisor. Writing as a scholar rather than a popular historian, Gellman criticizes–by name–academics, authors and journalists with whom he disagrees.

Though the book is favorable to Nixon, it is nevertheless valuable as a review of the Eisenhower years and a look inside of his administration.

I draw the following impressions:

1. Eisenhower had an unusual style for a President. He was a beloved symbol of the nation, reassuring the people, while not asserting personal leadership.

2. Eisenhower had little skill or interest in politics. He did not publicly fight for his programs. He left the national politicking to his Vice President, the chair of the Republican National Committee, and his Attorney General.

3. Eisenhower was irresponsible about his health. Ike was sick man. In his first term he was incapacitated for several weeks from a serious heart attack. In those days of less advanced medicine, many people feared that Ike would not live out his term. Nevertheless, he ran for a second term, during which he suffered a stroke.

4. Eisenhower was irresponsible in keeping his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, in office. After surgery for incurable cancer, Dulles returned to work and was in declining health and increasing pain until he resigned a month before his death. The country needed a vigorous Secretary of State during the heat of the Cold War.

5. Nixon was irresponsible as to his own health. Nixon was a pill popper. His compliant doctors prescribed drugs to get him going in the morning and sleeping at night. Nixon could not hold his liquor.

6. Within the administration, Nixon was the advocate for civil rights. Nixon was not driven so much by morality but by concern that the Soviet Union and the Third World nations were rightfully attacking the United States for segregation and racism.

7. Nixon was a masterful diplomat and ambassador of good will.

8. Though conservative and pro-business, Eisenhower and his team were not the type of haters who have captured the national spotlight in recent years.

Had Nixon won in 1960, I think he would have been better than President Kennedy in foreign policy. Nixon had a vision for foreign affairs. He was confident in his knowledge and understanding. He would have been a firm leader. Kennedy, by contrast, was untested and insecure during his first two years in office. Until the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, his foreign policy swung from weak to recklessly aggressive. Nixon would have been better at keeping the peace.

As to domestic affairs, I can’t imagine Nixon being as sympathetic to civil rights as Kennedy. Never would he have appointed an Attorney General as zealous or visionary as Robert F. Kennedy.

The President and the Apprentice is a worthy read for Republican and Democrat alike.