Coasting with Ike in '56

by William Costello | November 16, 1959

The 1956 campaign began in an atmosphere of political uncertainty. A good deal of water had gone over the dam since Eisenhower had discounted Communism as a major political issue in the United States. In the interval McCarthyism had been killed off. The question in the minds of Democrats was whether Nixon and the Republican Old Guard would agree that the security issue had been disposed of, or whether the Vice President, for lack of anything more popular as a debating ground, would return to his charge that the Democratic Party was soft on Communism.

Nixon's role, it was tacitly conceded, was the major imponderable since Eisenhower clearly would not tax his strength with the kind of campaign he had waged four years earlier.

Washington columnists as early as December, 1955, floated reports that the President's illness had caused Nixon to reconsider his posture on the national scene. The stridency of his ambition, it was said, had mellowed because, to his surprise, his speeches were no longer mere exercises in semantics but were widely read as the utterances of a man who might well be President. His new status sobered him, so the legend went; and to prove it there were reports that he had cast about for speech writers to help modulate his pronouncements.

The campaign was slow getting under way, and Nixon made his preparations with the deliberation of a veteran. By September 9 he had scheduled a pulse-feeling excursion into 32 states; and having so set the stage, he met privately at the White House with President Eisenhower to agree on the line each would follow on the stump. He told newsmen next day, as he prepared to begin work on his basic speech, that his mission would be to counter Democratic "distortions" of the record "vigorously and aggressively so that people will know that they have something to fight for." And with a nostalgic genuflection to the Chotiner influence, he added: "You can't win by wishy-washy milktoast."

It was not exactly a rocking-socking-fighting mood; something more like a synthetic, Sunday-best facsimile. As for the capital cloakroom jargon of the moment talk of the "new Nixon" as something less bloodthirsty than the slugger who had infuriated opponents in earlier campaigns - he remained smoothly noncommittal. The individual, he said, "is least qualified to judge whether he is new or old."

The curtain-raiser for the campaign was a folksy, enthusiastic picnic for 600 key party workers September 13 at the Eisenhower farm at Gettysburg. The President played host under a big tent in a pasture; he circulated busily in the crowd shaking hands, lined up with his guests at a buffet table to eat fried chicken, and shared star billing with Nixon on the speaking program.

In tone if not in the substance of his apparently discursive remarks, Ike set the keynote for the campaign. Saying, "I feel fine," and looking it, the President threw away his prepared notes and delivered an informal pep talk in which he took for himself the role of defining basic guideposts for the Republican Party. Then, alluding boldly to the issue of his own health, as he had from the beginning, he went on to assure the assemblage: "There is no man in the history of America who has had such a careful preparation as has Vice President Nixon for carrying out the duties of the Presidency, if that duty should ever fall on him."

In the light of that statement there could be no blinking at the fact that Nixon was a central figure if not the central issue of the campaign. The Vice President in turn reflected the shifting scale of values; he defined his primary responsibility in the terms which by now had grown familiar to audiences from coast to coast, even to the solemn assurance of which he seemed never to tire: "You don't win campaigns with a diet of dishwater and milktoast!”

He went on to deny that the Democrats were the party of the poor and that Republicans were only for the rich and big business; he ridiculed charges that the Eisenhower Administration was shot through with corruption; he accused Stevenson of political fakery for voicing a hope that the draft might soon be ended, and twitted the Democratic nominee for his failure to give the Supreme Court's school integration ruling his foursquare endorsement.

Ike and Mamie beamed at the platform sallies; the guests were noisily, cheerfully partisan; and the picnic set a tone of genial party strife, a far cry from the desperate climate of mistrust that had prevailed two years earlier.

Nixon's actual campaigning began early on the morning of September 18. The scene was the T'errace Dining Room of the Washington National Airport. Present to signalize the occasion was President Eisenhower himself, breakfasting with the- Vice President and a group of other GOP campaigners. Nixon had ahead of him six weeks of the most arduous hedgehopping and whistlestopping, 33,000 miles in 32 states.

Ike was in a rosy, confident mood, and he was ready with a characteristic homily. "The record itself is sufficient, if it is made sufficiently clear to all Americans," he assured the Vice President. "And that should be our campaign." To make his message wholly clear, the President added benignly that there was "no need to indulge in the exaggerations of partisan political talk" nor to "claim perfection."

That was the official enunciation of the party line. The President was on hand with a parting salute because it was the least he could do for a man undertaking that most difficult of all missions - the task of stating another man's case for him - but he was there on his own terms, not on Nixon's. However reluctant Eisenhower was to do his own stumping, whether for reasons of health or otherwise, he undertook to lay out the ground rules for the struggle, rules that did not encourage the Chotiner-Nixon style of in-fighting.

In the circumstances, the professionals had to accept the President's battle plan as a calculated risk. They had barely won control of Congress in '52, riding the Eisenhower coattails, and they had lost heavily in '54 after an all-out slugging match. The reasonable inference was that there was no magic in the party name or image, and that even slugging had its limitations. That being so, what remained in their arsenal was the Eisenhower magic. If that could still win - even if only on a diet of dishwater and milktoast - it had to win for both itself and the party.

 

Exorcising the Old Nixon 

For lack of another issue, the President's health continued to hold the center of the stage. The Republicans might not have preferred it that way but it was not theirs to choose. And the focal point of that issue, quite logically and inevitably, was Vice President Nixon. The voter had only to ask himself - or be invited to by a Democrat - whether a Republican ticket deserved to win if the man who might succeed to the Presidency was of questionable fitness for the highest office in the land. So long as the question could be asked, it had to be answered.

Opinion about Nixon was still divided. One of the Vice President's avowed admirers, Richard Wilson, wrote in Look that his biggest problem was still "to overcome the impression in some groups, particularly those who think of themselves as intellectuals, that some undefined tricky quality in Nixon makes him unsuited for the Presidency." The Madison (Wis.) Capital Times argued with frank belligerency that the problem was "how to exploit Nixon's unquestionable capacity for smear-type campaigning and at the same time project the image of Eisenhower as a unifier and pacifier above the political battles."

The origin of the 1956 strategy — whether it was conceived by the Vice President alone or in concert with Administration and party advisers - has never been revealed. At any rate, the Republican high command let itself be persuaded that the task of the campaign was to exorcise the old, controversial Nixon personality. If the Vice President was to be propped up as the spokesman and filial image of an ailing Administration, the first essential was to provide him with a veneer of statesmanship and Eisenhowerism.

Nixon embraced the strategy skillfully. He was billed as the traveling salesman of Republicanism but his chief product was no longer to be the party. His tactic, when the precinct workers yelled for the taste of raw meat, was to offer instead the composite Eisenhower-Nixon personality, whose spirit infused and transcended the grosser aspects of partisanship.

The campaign was hardly more than a few days old when the Wall Street Journal cited, as an example of his "political craftsmanship," the fact that Nixon had "carefully set out to undo Democratic attempts to picture him as just a party hatchet man, and to appear before the voters as a man of Presidential timber."

Nixon had fortified himself for the ordeal. Five days before the Terrace Dining Room pep-talk, he had secluded himself in a room at the Mayflower Hotel. There with pencil and pad, he outlined, revised and laboriously, brick by brick, laid out the text of his "basic speech."

"He just climbed into his pajamas and thought and thought and wrote and wrote," one of his press secretaries told Richard Rovere. "He doesn't want ghostwriters. Oh, we help with research, and we give him ideas now and then, and sometimes we throw in a phrase or a sentence we think might be helpful. But it all goes through that meat-grinder of a mind he's got, and believe me, it comes out an entirely different grade of hamburger. He has his own vocabulary and his own rhythms, and none of us can really catch them. And he'll never use anything that doesn't sound like him."

 

Theme of the Campaign

What came out of the meat-grinder was, in essence, a slogan joined with a name: "Eisenhower; peace, prosperity, progress." It was a text liberally sprinkled with eulogies to "the greatest leader of the atomic age," "a man who ranks among the greatest of the legendary heroes of this nation," "a man of destiny, both at home and abroad." It reached a climax urging every American to rise above the petty squabbles of partisanship:

"And finally may I tell you, as you go out and work in this campaign to keep [name of state] in the Eisenhower column, you are working for an Administration that has brought peace and prosperity and progress to America and you are going to be working for a man whom every American can proudly hold up to his children as one who has faith in God, faith in America, and one who has restored dignity and respect to the highest office in the land."

On the first leg of his tour, from Washington to Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, Nixon's quest for votes fell into a smooth-running pattern. At the first stop after the President's send-off, in Indianapolis, he promised to stick to the high road, but warned the Democrats not to get rough. "Let's get one thing straight right now," he said. "Where our opponents misrepresent and distort the record and where they vilify the President of the United States, I shall consider it a duty and a privilege to set the record straight." The rest was oratorical window dressing.

By the time he hit Oregon, Nixon had so polished the basic speech that he could deliver it backward. It was a subdued, mellow performance, with just enough nips at the Truman policies to stir up the crowd but none like his snide 1952 assurance that "nothing would please the Kremlin more" than Stevenson's election.

At each airport Nixon walked down the ramp from his DC-6B with his arm around wife Pat, for a greeting from a beribboned delegation of ranking Republicans in the vicinity. Then off in a motorcade to the rally. The speech drew good crowds and seemed to go over, although to be sure the audiences were to a large extent claques of the faithful who needed no persuasion.

From city to city and state to state the main body of the speech remained constant, and as the phraseology grew shopworn with repetition, the correspondents coined their own titles for the familiar cliches. "The Old Shoe" was his statement that the United States "has prosperity and peace to boot"; the "Weight-Lifting Act," his line that "every man can hold up Dwight Eisenhower to his children as a man who has faith in God, faith in America"; and the "Bush-Leaguer" identified his assertion that "Adlai Stevenson just isn't in the same league with President Eisenhower."

A correspondent who accompanied the Vice President on both 1956 campaign swings admitted that, listening to him day after day, a preconceived dislike had been intensified. "There was something completely synthetic about Nixon's appearances," he said. "He never debated the issues, simply brushed them off with slogans and cliches. After a while you only felt him saying to himself: 'How can I make this crowd like me?' Granting that all politicians want to be liked, Nixon's effort was too transparent; it made him look bad."

On this as on other trips, both Nixons worked with tireless intensity. Their chartered airliner had been fitted with a beaverboard compartment at the rear where they could have privacy - reading, or napping or writing without interruption. For Nixon, one of the advantages of plane travel was that, with every seat booked, there was no room for that self-invited pest, the local politician who might want to hitch a ride to the next stop, Toward the end of the trip Nixon did shift to a train part of the time and he made no secret of his distaste for the company of these political hangovers of the whistlestopping era. When a reporter asked whether he preferred planes or trains, he answered: "Planes of course; more privacy, and you can get more work done."

Normally his tours booked every hour of every day solidly. On one occasion in California there was an enforced layover of several hours, and a group of weary staff members and reporters took advantage of the break to go for a swim in the hotel pool. Suddenly, in the midst of the laughter and horseplay, Nixon in his bathing suit stalked into the patio, dove in, swam the length of the pool several times, climbed out and disappeared in the direction of his room. All this without so much as a glance right or left or a word or a smile to anyone in the party.

For Mrs. Nixon, as for her husband, every thought was dedicated to the campaign. On one occasion in Cheyenne, Nixon was suffering from a virus attack and the speech was an ordeal; words came with difficulty, his face was ashen and he fought for control. Later, as the party boarded a midnight plane, a correspondent standing beside Mrs. Nixon expressed sympathy for the Vice President's having to carry on at such a cost. "Oh," she exclaimed defensively, "but it was a good speech!" Outwardly, whatever her private feelings, no sign of wifely anxiety.

By October 1 the Vice President's preoccupation with the pounding rhythms of the campaign was being interrupted by raucous protests from Republican headquarters in Washington. Willard Edwards reported in The Chicago Tribune, after private conversations with Nixon in his flying office, that the party high commandhad begun sending messages begging him frantically toslug it out with Stevenson and deploring the lofty levelat which he had been operating. In response to their advice to "engage in verbal street-fighting, slashing, ripping and swinging from his heels," the Vice Presidentlet it be known that he had no intention of becoming a"political Jack-the-Ripper."

To verify the report, Edwards telephoned Washington at a stop on the tour and confirmed, not only that Nixon was running his own show, but that panicky Republican leaders were imploring him to assume again the role of hatchet man. "He's paying us no attention," a high Republican official growled. "He's got his own mimeograph machine and he won't let us lay a hand on the crank."

What had stirred the party high command to a sense of panic were the private polls indicating an easy victory for Eisenhower and Nixon, but a depressing outlook for House and Senate candidates in many areas. Nixon admitted that, in probing for "soft spots," he had found many; but to him the cold fact of politics was that the Republicans were a minority party, and Eisenhower could not win without Democratic votes. His appeal was therefore bipartisan in those states where voter registration showed the Republicans to be outnumbered; and the tactics that he had favored in earlier years were no longer appropriate.

Nixon worked subtly and persistently to divide the Democratic Party against itself. One of his popular arguments at closed meetings of party workers was that UAW President Walter Reuther, whom he called the "smartest labor leader in America," was the "man to beat" in November rather than Stevenson. After he had exploited the possibilities of this line privately, he arranged that a Michigan reporter should hear one of his briefings. The result was a Detroit News story in which Nixon praised Reuther's "cleverness" and suggested that the UAW leader sat at the center of a nationwide spider-web, the "source of the big money and organizers" capable of winning for the Democratic Party.

At the other extreme, he went so far in a Milwaukee news conference as to make backhanded amends for his controversial 1952 allusion to Truman as a "traitor to the high principles" of the Democratic Party. Explaining the charge, Nixon said: "I believe that in the Democratic Party there is a great cleavage between the great principles on which the Democratic Party was founded - Jefferson and Jackson, principles which recognize the dignity of the individual, the sovereignty of the states - and the new theory which some of those who are now quite influential in the Democratic Party hold to, that the answer to most problems is through federal government action. I think that when Mr. Truman and Mr. Stevenson and others went along with this new theory rather than the one that is traditionally considered to be the special province of the Democratic Party, I believe they left millions of Democrats without a home. In other words, I believe that they deserted their party rather than the party deserting them."

The stratagem may have been well conceived, but if it paid off the evidence was scanty. In fact, it was a question how much or whether the final outcome was affected at all by the selfless foot-pounds of energy and devotion he poured into the struggle. On the whole it was a tepid campaign because there was no fundamental or vital issue dividing the country that year. During October the campaign was enlivened, if only sporadically, by Adlai Stevenson's proposal to suspend nuclear bomb testing; but the fallout danger had not yet been recognized for what it was, and the public was not ready for the proposal.

By and large the test ban never became an issue. Eisenhower, having perhaps some prescience that the proposal contained its own built-in logic, treated the subject gingerly. Nixon began with similar caution, calling it first "unacceptable," but warming to the subject progressively when he found audiences responsive. At Philadelphia October 3 he called the test ban proposal "extraordinary - appalling - catastrophic nonsense - the height of irresponsibility - naive - the most dangerous theme of the campaign." By October 17 at Buffalo he was accusing Stevenson of "playing dangerous politics with American security," and referring to "the ridiculous H-bomb proposal" as a "major political error" on Stevenson's part.

 

Yielding Not to Temptation

Except for that indiscretion, Nixon's new personality was proof against all temptation. When Congressman Dewey Short, introducing him at a rally, assured Nixon: "You're among friends - take off your gloves and sock them," the Vice President could only pretend not to hear. In Ohio, where GOP workers openly deplored his mellow mood, he was challenged directly to defend his "high-level" campaign. For the first time, publicly at any rate, he deserted the Chotiner fear-and-scare psychology of winning political converts. He told a news conference: "The problem this year is different from that in 1952. I always conduct a hard-hitting campaign on issues, and avoid personalities. In 1952 we were giving the people reasons to throw out a group, and now we are giving them reasons to keep an Administration in. What I am doing now is to appeal to swing voters, whom we must have to win. It is essential to have a type of campaign persuasive to independents and Democrats."

Nixon's first cross-country swing was followed by a second, and simultaneously by a burst of energy on Eisenhower's part. Their theme remained the same - that the American people had never been happier or more prosperous. They refused to grapple with the possibility that the world had achieved, not peace, but an uneasy truce.

As the campaign drew to a close Nixon was saying "our opponents are having great difficulty finding issues." Actually he was on the defensive, painting a synthetic state of euphoria and having difficulty avoiding issues. In the Midwest he refused to mention Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson, farm parity prices or flexible price supports. At Cornell University, where a group of college editors hammered hard at suggestions that there was inconsistency between his voting record and his current campaign speeches, he answered in platitudes. On McCarthyism, when asked if he favored a resumption of Senate probing, he could only insist the Eisenhower Administration had taken the security issue out of politics.

It was Nixon's good fortune that the public was as little interested in the issues as he was in discussing them. His appeal continued to be essentially emotional or evangelistic. He avoided mention of the Republican platform or the program the party would put forward if elected. His argument from beginning to end was that President Eisenhower was the greatest man alive and should be re-elected to assure continued peace, prosperity and progress. It was not a thesis to set the countryside afire, but Nixon was no longer a firebrand. His was a more modest role.

A newsman in Buffalo captured the tone of the Vice President's 1956 campaign. Questioning a staffer, he pried out an admission that Nixon had explicitly vetoed use of Cadillacs or other big cars in his motorcades!

In the upshot, it was an easy Eisenhower victory. The margin was more than nine million popular votes; 35,590,472 for Eisenhower; 26,029,752 for Stevenson. But the fears of party professionals had been well grounded. The Democrats held their control in the Senate, 49 to 47; and picked up another two seats in the House. Thus, notwithstanding a Presidential sweep of landslide proportions, the Republican Party could not win at the state and district level. It had tried the hard sell without success in '54, and it had no better results in '56 using both a soft sell and the Eisenhower magic. From the Vice President's point of view, looking ahead to 1960, the returns were ambiguous.

This article originally ran in the November 16, 1959 issue of the magazine.

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