Monday, January 26, 2009

Vice President Nixon

It is easy to forget early accomplishments of our Presidents, instead concentrating on their presidential accomplishments, especially when they come significantly before the presidency, like Nixon’s Vice Presidency. So today I would like to take some time to talk about Nixon’s contributions as Vice President to Dwight Eisenhower. Nixon first made his mark in the campaign as he proved to be a ferocious campaigner.

Nixon was an active and involved Vice President:
Over the next eight years, Richard Nixon elevated the office of vice president to a position of importance never before seen. No previous vice president was ever as active within the administration or enjoyed as much responsibility, partly because of Nixon's own energetic habits. He was always looking for something to do and took a keen interest in almost every aspect of government. Circumstances also played a part because of Eisenhower's occasional health problems. Believing that Franklin Roosevelt's failure to keep Vice President Harry S. Truman informed of government initiatives like the Manhattan Project had been dangerous, Eisenhower was determined that his own vice president would be as well informed as anyone in the administration. But the primary reason for Nixon's activist status was that Eisenhower provided him with unique opportunities. Apart from the vice president's constitutional role as presiding officer of the Senate, the occupant of that office can only safely take up the activities that the president indicates are appropriate. Most presidents made little use of their vice presidents. Eisenhower, however, with his military experience confirming the value of a well-trained subordinate officer, found that Nixon could be an important part of his "team" concept of presidential administration, especially since Nixon possessed many of the political skills that were lacking in some of Eisenhower's other key advisers. Also, unlike some other vice presidents, Nixon did not represent a former or potential challenger to Eisenhower. Ike was, therefore, willing to use his youthful vice president for important tasks, and Nixon was willing to be so used. When they differed on questions of policy, there was never any question that Nixon would follow the president's lead. Because Nixon could perform smoothly in the several roles that Eisenhower needed filled, he was able to cultivate the image of an active and important vice president.
One of Nixon’s key roles was as a party liaison:
Nixon's most important function in the administration was to link Eisenhower with the party leadership, especially in Congress. Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., were the only former congressmen in the Eisenhower cabinet, and no one else had Nixon's connections with the Senate. Although the Republicans held a slim majority in Congress, it was not certain that the Old Guard, many of whom were influential committee chairmen, would rally to Eisenhower's legislative agenda. If the president was going to push through his program of "modern Republicanism" and stave off unwanted legislation, he needed a former member who could "work the Hill" on his behalf. Nixon advised Eisenhower to go to Congress "only in dramatic circumstances," because "Truman came so often there were occasions when he didn't have a full House," but he need not have worried. Eisenhower had no intention of trying to dominate Congress the way his predecessors had. Eisenhower and Nixon held regular meetings with the Republican congressional leadership, but the president had little contact with other GOP members of Congress, and he seldom tried to harness public pressure against Congress to support his legislation. This approach suited Eisenhower's "hidden hand" style of leadership, but to be effective, someone had to serve as the administration's political broker with the rest of the Republicans. Nixon was the obvious candidate.
One of the more immediate tasks for the new vice president was to help the administration defeat the Bricker amendment. In 1951, Republican Senator John W. Bricker of Ohio had introduced a constitutional amendment that would have drastically curtailed the ability of the president to obtain treaties and executive agreements with other nations. Bricker's immediate purpose was to prohibit President Truman from entering into agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, for fear that it would compromise the sovereignty of the United States. More generally, the Bricker amendment aimed to increase the influence of Congress in making foreign policy. Even with a Republican in the White House, Bricker refused to back away from his amendment, offering it as the first order of business in the new Congress, with the support of almost every Republican senator. Eisenhower, however, believed the amendment would severely restrict the necessary powers of the president and make the nation "helpless in world affairs." Rather than confront his own party leadership, he hoped to delay action on the measure in order to gradually chip away at its support. He sent Nixon and others to work with Bricker on compromises and suggested a "study committee," with Bricker as its chair, to come up with an agreeable alternative. Bricker, however, would not yield on the substance of his amendment. Finally, in 1954, after much wrangling, the administration convinced Democrat Walter George of Georgia to offer a much less stringent substitute. On the crucial roll call, the substitute received a vote of 60 to 31, falling one short of the two-thirds majority necessary for passage of a constitutional amendment. Bricker tried to revive his amendment, but too many Republicans had changed sides. Vice President Nixon had been one of the administration's most active lobbyists in defeating the amendment without splitting the party. His other primary assignment as party intermediary proved more demanding.
Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI) shot to fame in 1950 by brazenly claiming that the State Department was full of "known Communists." Over the next two years, he waged a running battle with the Truman administration over its conduct of foreign policy and the loyalty of its appointees. Many Republicans and some conservative Democrats joined in this anticommunist "crusade." They averred that the nation had been betrayed at Yalta and that Truman had "lost China." McCarthy promised to clean the Communists out of government and to end "twenty years of treason."
When Dwight Eisenhower entered the White House, he and his advisers hoped that Vice President Nixon could keep McCarthy in line if the senator continued his attacks. The results of this strategy were mixed. Nixon was certainly the right man for the job. As historian David Oshinsky writes, "Only Taft and Nixon seemed able to reach him [McCarthy], and Taft was now too sick to try." Nixon was also one of the few people in the nation who could safely deal with the "McCarthy problem," because, as Eisenhower put it, "Anybody who takes it on runs the risk of being called a pink. Dick has had experience in the communist field, and therefore he would not be subject to criticism." Nixon succeeded in convincing McCarthy not to pursue an investigation of the CIA, but the senator was soon talking about "twenty-one years of treason," implying that Eisenhower had not stemmed the tide. Neither Nixon nor anyone else could convince McCarthy not to investigate the U.S. Army. As chairman of the Committee on Government Operations' Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, McCarthy had wide discretion to conduct investigations, but Eisenhower publicly claimed that he would not allow members of the executive branch to testify about private conversations. He also supported army officers who refused to appear before the subcommittee. As the president did what he could to divert the hearings, he had Nixon make a national speech emphasizing the need to be "fair" in the pursuit of Communists. In the end, McCarthy went too far. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings revealed to the public a bellicose senator viciously attacking the army and the administration. As the president refused to give executive information to the committee, and as McCarthy's public support waned, his Senate colleagues finally decided they had seen enough. On December 2, 1954, with Vice President Nixon presiding, the Senate voted 67 to 22 to condemn McCarthy's behavior. Republicans split 22 to 22 on the vote, with Democrats unanimously in favor. Thus, after Eisenhower's attempt to use Nixon to contain McCarthy failed, the administration had resorted instead to quiet resistance, allowing McCarthy himself to bring about his own downfall.

For all he contributed, Nixon and Eisenhower weren’t that close:
In the end, Richard Nixon filled with considerable skill the roles that President Eisenhower gave him. So why did Eisenhower come close to dropping him from the ticket in 1956? Eisenhower's opinion of his vice president was most ambiguous. The president appreciated Nixon's efforts in carrying out his assigned tasks. He told associates, "it would be difficult to find a better Vice President" and publicly repeated such praises on a regular basis. He also "believed Nixon to be the best prepared man in government to take over [his] duties in any emergency." This was more than just public flattery for a subordinate. Because of his wide-ranging interests and Eisenhower's willingness, Nixon was perhaps the most informed member of the administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles kept him briefed on State Department affairs, and even the CIA was willing to provide outlines of its current activities. For Eisenhower, this faith in Nixon as vice president did not translate into confidence about Nixon's potential for the presidency. He saw Nixon as a dedicated junior officer who performed his duties with skill but had not developed into a true leader. He worried constantly that his young vice president had not "matured." Eisenhower saw the presidency as the office of a statesman rather than a partisan politician. The 1960s image of Eisenhower as being naive or nonpolitical is inaccurate, but he did believe that presidential politics was different from congressional or statewide politics. The office required a person who could rise above unseemly partisan bickering (at least in public) to represent the national interest, and he did not believe that Richard Nixon had shown that kind of potential. This was partially an unfair assessment, since Nixon's public image as a fierce partisan was magnified by Eisenhower's insistence on using him to conduct the president's public political battles. Still, Nixon's "natural partisan instincts," as Nixon called them, were never far from the surface, and they made Eisenhower uncomfortable. In the end, Eisenhower decided that Nixon just had not "grown," and that he was not "presidential timber."
When Eisenhower decided to run for reelection in 1956, he also began to feel uneasy about not having established a "logical successor." He would have liked to run with Robert Anderson, his treasury secretary, but Anderson, a Democrat, knew the GOP would never accept him. The president hoped to find a way to get Nixon off the ticket without seeming to "dump" him. As a result, when he announced his own candidacy and the press asked him about Nixon, he dodged by claiming it was "traditional . . . to wait and see who the Republican Convention nominates." Since this was a "tradition" that had been broken by Franklin Roosevelt and had not been observed by Eisenhower himself in 1952, it was obvious that Eisenhower was being disingenuous. No one saw this more clearly than Richard Nixon.
Nixon’s role as Vice President would translate into a run for the Presidency in 1960 on the Republican ticket, but not a victory. That would have to wait.

1 comment:

coriolan said...

In an August 24 1960 press conference, a reporter asked Eisenhower if he could give an example of a major idea of Vice President Nixon's that was adopted by his administration. Ike's response:

"If you give me a week, I might think of one."

Things between Ike and Nixon were definitely not warm and fuzzy.