The President and the Apprentice by Irvin F. Gellman is a massive and masterful book. It runs nearly 600 pages, not counting another 200 small print notes and citations. A remarkable effort.
One could write pages of comments of course on such a huge research project, but as a lay person (non-academic) who remembers (albeit as a school child) the 1950s, there are two aspects that I personally found most significant: theme and challenge.
The Vice Presidency as an Entity:
It must be remembered that for 150 years prior to Vice President Nixon, the office of Vice President was little more than a geopolitical accommodation: an honorable position, but largely ceremonial with no heavy lifting. The concept of a Vice President doing anything more substantive than attending funerals, cutting ribbons and laying cornerstones was new.
In fact, it was so insignificant, that if you added up the amount of time the country physically had an empty Vice Presidential office, it would be more than 38 years!
When Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated, VP Marshall cringed at the thought of assuming responsibility (assuming that Wilson would allow it). And even though Franklin Roosevelt was failing in health (and probably knew it), he kept Harry Truman in the dark about most issues.
This changed via Ike and Nixon.
The theme of The President and the Apprentice, of course, is the 1950s, and we aging boomers and boomers-emeritus who are still around, usually have fond memories of that time: the nuclear “Donna Reed” family values (when kids could walk six blocks to school by themselves without fear of serious mayhem), TV and rock ‘n’ roll.
We tend to forget the undercurrents simmering below that post-war sigh of contentment: a belligerent Korean situation, unrest in Africa and the Middle East, civil rights tension about to explode in our own country, and oh yes, Communism, Sputnik and The Bomb.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Author Gellman is younger with no first-hand memories save that (perhaps) of Richard Nixon twenty years post his Vice Presidency. The challenge here is enormous, and Gellman makes a huge effort to be fair, which in this particular case, is incredibly difficult. Few men have been more divisive than Nixon; if he said it was sunny and warm outside, there would be those who would insist there was a blizzard.
Just slogging through the various memos, diaries, letters and documents of the hundreds of people involved either closely or peripherally is daunting. The mega-issues that still prevail today are equally daunting. With modern emphasis on “primary source” research, one is sometimes hard pressed to know who and what to believe. Even primary sources (including the subjects themselves) do not always a) know everything, and b) tell the complete truth.
The main challenge (among many) is public perception. President Eisenhower, victorious General, Ike the Beloved (everybody liked Ike), and Nixon the Suspect (would you buy a used car?…) Given the subsequent career of Richard Nixon, those perceptions still run deep.
The second challenge (among many) is the long-held perception of Ike as a lazy president; a General accustomed to delegating, and even happier to play golf and stay above the fray. All PR and no politics.
That concept has changed among historians over the last few decades, concurring that Ike had a deep understanding and connection to all the key issues, and operated with a “hidden hand.” Ike, the strategist-General, careful in deploying his tacticians. (The PR and no politics part, however, remains. Ike did not like or truly understand politics.) That Nixon was deployed to undertake matters of consequence has never been questioned. Nixon put the office “on the map” as it were. No more cornerstone-laying and beauty queen crowning.
Yet another challenge, albeit a personal one, was the relationship between Ike and Dick as people – who eventually would become family by marriage.
Ike was a genial fellow, boy-to-man, who had a wall-to-wall grin and easy-to-like personality. Always one of the guys. Nixon was nice enough looking, but darker. There was always the undercurrent paranoia of the outsider. The guy who never quite belonged.
According to Gellman, it was Nixon himself who may have fostered the premise that the personal relationship between the President and his apprentice was cordial, but distant. Gellman believes otherwise, and supports it with generous documentation. Nevertheless it is Nixon’s perception that counts, and it is Nixon’s perception that colors, rather than the paperwork.
Ike was happy to throw Nixon under the bus during the first election in 1952 (Checkers Speech); he was cool in 1956, letting the “convention” make the decision. Some years later, when asked about Nixon’s “accomplishments,” Ike was unforgivably callous, wanting some “time to think about it.”
Nixon had been Ike’s go-to man for the hard, and sometimes unpleasant duties, politics being at the top of that list. And he gave 1000%. If Nixon was hurt, he had cause, and like all outsiders, the hurt ran silent and deep.
The Historical Perspective
Dozens and perhaps hundreds of books have been written about Ike, both as “General Ike,” and as President. Ditto Nixon, whose long political career spanned a half-century of more ups and downs than Ike’s EKG. It is hard to be neutral. Gellman has not only undertaken the challenge with a sense of fair play, he has presented a book that deserves to be on every library shelf, and one that future historians will value and respect.
He openly acknowledges Ike’s quiet but active role as president, and even more, demonstrates the many opportunities that were afforded to his Vice President, and how much they contributed to Nixon’s eventual career. Nixon’s “acting presidency” during Ike’s serious illnesses became a rare opportunity for him to learn and grow – something no other Vice President had before.
Gellman’s book is aptly named: The President and the Apprentice. It was just that: a mentoring by a great man to a younger man who was eager to learn. Gellman is fair, he is thorough, he is readable, and he is relevant.
Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961
By Irwin F. Gellman
Illustrated. 791 pp. Yale University Press. $40.