A Part of the American Story
One afternoon as the leaves were turning in the Philadelphia Main Line town of Berwyn, a little girl with a hauntingly familiar face came home perplexed from school. “A lot of people don’t like ‘Ba.’ I guess it’s because of Vietnam,” she said to her father. “Ba,” as his grandchildren call him, is Richard Nixon, and the third grader with the daunting legacy is Jennie Eisenhower. As the eldest child born to Nixon’s daughter Julie and Dwight Eisenhower’s grandson David, Jennie is the first to confront her unique position in history—and that of her parents.
Julie and David. David and Julie. When they married on December 22, 1968, a month before Nixon took office, it was as if a prince of fabled lineage had married a king’s daughter. Then came dethronement and exile. Battered and depressed—but ever loyal to the deposed monarch—the young royals eventually retreated to a safer world of commoners in the woodsy suburbs. Raising their three children, the Eisenhowers sought anonymity and security in simple pursuits like driving to K mart in their wood-paneled station wagon. “I’m not recognized here at all,” says Julie, a poised, gracious woman whose friendliness doesn’t quite hide the politically honed cautiousness underneath. “I meet people through my child’s nursery school instead of at a White House dinner. It’s more normal.”
The Eisenhowers’ fragile hold on anonymity is now in jeopardy, although Julie and David, both 38, have only themselves and their compelling sense of mission to blame. “We feel a part of the American story,” explains David, the more serious of the two. “We’ve joined two families, and we feel obligated to do something.” In David’s case that meant spending 10 years writing an 822-page history of his grandfather’s years as Supreme Allied Commander. Eisenhower at War, 1943-45 (Random House, $29.95) came out in September to largely glowing reviews.
This month, Julie will bring out a biography of her mother. Pat Nixon, The Untold Story (Simon and Schuster, $19.95) is a loving valentine that may surprise many readers. Julie refutes the standard image of Pat as the tight-lipped, long-suffering wife. “I don’t see her as a victim,” says Julie, “and she doesn’t see herself that way. She didn’t like it that the White House portrait of her made her mouth look sad.”
Nor was Pat a mere tool of her husband, at least in the early years. To prove this, Julie includes some of her parents’ love letters. His begin with salutations like “Dear Baby” and “Dear Plum” and show that as a young officer, Nixon could turn out a pretty fair billet-doux. “I may not say much when I am with you,” he wrote, “but all of me loves all of you all the time. I certainly am not the Romeo type, and you are so beautiful.” Pat was also a romantic, and once wrote to Dick: “It’s two o’clock [in the morning], but I just had to write to say I very much love you.”
In telling her mother’s story, Julie was motivated by a need to set the record straight. “So often my parents have been caricatured,” she says. “I wanted to show them as human.” Moreover, Julie explains that after her mother’s stroke in 1976, “I realized she wasn’t invincible. I wanted to know more about her life.” At 74, Pat remains in fragile health. “She has to pace herself,” says Julie, “and she has some difficulty breathing.” Pat, who never regained full use of her left hand after the stroke, also suffers from degenerative arthritis in her neck.
Enjoying her privacy and dubious about the merits of digging up the past, the former First Lady was cautious when Julie approached her with the notion of writing a biography. “She didn’t discourage me,” Julie recalls. “She wasn’t going to stand in my way. She gave me her letters and diaries.” Pat didn’t ask to see the book, and Julie didn’t show it to her. “I needed the independence,” says the author. “I didn’t want someone looking over my shoulder. My dad hasn’t read it, either.”
The one thing that Pat did warn Julie about was the fact that she might be asked some uncomfortable questions while promoting the book. “She thinks my father is a great man,” Julie explains. “She didn’t want Watergate brought up again. She didn’t want me to refight old battles.”
Watergate. The word is not mentioned often with visitors and seems to hang in the air like an unpleasant odor. Yet, in the Eisenhowers’ simple one-story brick home, once a pheasant house on the estate of artist Mary Cassatt’s brother, it cannot be forgotten. A “Nixon’s the One” commemorative license plate from the ’68 campaign adorns David’s study. Nixon’s books are lined up on a shelf in the living room, a pretty, but unpretentious room with floral sofas, glass knickknacks and a landscape painted by Ike.
The former President’s frugal work ethic seems to have passed on to his daughter and son-in-law. They yearn to travel but rarely do, eat out perhaps once a week and own a ’76 Oldsmobile in addition to the 1981 station wagon. Julie relies on baby-sitters and a once-a-week cleaning woman and treasures the flowered rose living-room rug her mother bought in the ’50s because it wouldn’t show cookie crumbs. “We live very austerely,” says David, who earns a modest salary as a part-time lecturer in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. For their books both Julie and David received advances reported to be in six figures.
Lunching one day in a favorite seafood restaurant, the Eisenhowers could be, as Julie jokes, “Dave and Julie Smith.” Though they may be suburban, there is no Updike bite to this couple. The Eisenhowers treat each other with solicitousness and seem remarkably unscarred by what they have been through. “I don’t believe in growth through adversity,” reflects Julie, “but no, I was never bitter.” She begins toying with her bread, showing an uncharacteristic flicker of nervousness. “Even in the darkest days, I didn’t think I wanted to be someone else. I was used to political battles. I was upset and sad for the pain of my family and the country, but I don’t ever have a sense of my father letting me down. Events ran away.”
Even the subject of the tapes does not seem to ruffle Julie unduly. “If I’d had my private conversations exposed, I would have sounded worse. I sound petty in private moments,” she argues with the deftness of a politico. Her father, she adds, does not use profanity around the family. “It was like men getting together bullshitting. I found it unattractive, but it didn’t surprise me.”
David, who calls his 73-year-old father-in-law “Mr. Nixon” (“It’s a step down from Mr. President,” jokes Julie), seems equally philosophical about the past. “Everyone knew the Nixon White House wasn’t going to end basking in goodwill,” he points out. “We knew that with the Indochina war. Oh, it was painful, but that came with the territory.”
The political world was friendlier in the ’50s when David was the adored only grandson of an immensely popular President. Growing up on Army bases as his father, Lt. Col. (later Brig. Gen.) John D. Eisenhower advanced his career, David hung out whenever possible with “Granddad.” Ike taught David golf at age 5 and fly casting at 7. When David was in first grade, his grandfather paid him $5 for each A and $3 for his lowest grade: B. During the White House years, Ike put his grandson to work for 250 an hour on the family farm at Gettysburg. There, notes David wryly, Ike “inspected the north pasture as if it were the Second Division Headquarters.”
Eisenhower’s Vice-President was a passing figure in David’s early life. One day the enterprising youngster persuaded his grandfather’s secretary to duplicate a short story he had written. On his way into the Oval Office Nixon was waylaid by David, who was selling his tale for 150. (Yes, Nixon bought a copy.)
David had met the Nixon girls on occasion but didn’t pay much mind until he enrolled in Amherst College in 1966. His grandmother Mamie suggested he look up Julie, a freshman at nearby Smith College. They got together for ice cream, and Julie paid because David was short on cash. “He’s very casual about those things,” she explains, with a loving look at her spouse. The two soon began dating and found that a Nixon and an Eisenhower were exceedingly well matched.
Like David, Julie had grown up in the shadow of the White House. Julie and her sister, Tricia, had lived in two different Washington houses (a Vice-President’s residence was not established until 1975); they had also been left in the care of Grandpa and Grandma Nixon and various baby-sitters as their parents went off on one trip after another. Only after Nixon failed in his bid for the Presidency in 1960 did life settle into a regular routine for the family. The Nixons bought a New York apartment; “Daddy,” as Julie calls him, went to work at his law firm, and “Mom” took the girls to museums and Schrafft’s. By the time Julie had enrolled at Smith, Nixon was again considering the Presidency. Julie found that even her dating life was colored by politics. In love with David after their fourth date, she wanted him to be her escort at her New York debut. “It was a public event. I was afraid I would be teased about the Nixon-Eisenhower team,” she says. She went ahead and invited David anyway, and in their junior year the “team” was made official by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale in Manhattan.
Settling down in a student apartment with paper-thin walls, the newly-weds suffered the presence of the Secret Service downstairs. “From day one,” remembers Julie, “we couldn’t wait to get rid of them.” To set themselves further apart from their classmates, Julie and David did not protest the Vietnam War, wear love beads or smoke marijuana. “We were called squares,” says Julie, “but I never felt that way. I thought I had a lot of individuality.” After graduating in 1970, David went on to become a Naval ensign, and Julie earned a master’s in education from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She later worked as an assistant editor at the Saturday Evening Post. As her father’s Presidency began to crumble, Julie increasingly became Cordelia to Nixon’s Lear. Staunchly defending him at a famous press conference in the Rose Garden, she was grim-faced at his side as Air Force One carried the Nixons off to California.
In the aftermath of Watergate, both David and Julie tried to find a life outside politics. David studied law at George Washington University, and Julie brought out her first book, Special People, portraits of famous figures she had met such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Golda Meir.
Since 1980 the Eisenhowers have been in Berwyn working on their respective books and raising their children. “We’re not into dynasties,” says Julie. “We named our son Alex instead of Richard Milhous or Dwight David.” Similarly, politics is no longer a hot topic in the household. “We might discuss aid to the contras over dinner,” admits Julie, “but we’re more likely to discuss what Jennie or Alex did at school that day.”
As for picking up the Nixon mantle, Julie says it’s unlikely that she will ever enter politics. David, however, is more interested. “I don’t rule it out,” he says. “I’ve been approached at many levels.” He cautions that any run for office is far in the future, probably when the kids are in college. Congress, “or that sort of thing,” says David, is what he has in mind.
For the next four years, David’s energies will go into completing two more volumes about his grandfather. Julie hopes to help David on these projects. Together they envision writing a series of “yearbooks” on great events in, say, 1968—the year Richard Nixon was elected President.
The Nixons are a forceful presence in the Eisenhowers’ life. Once a month or so, David and Julie bundle the kids into the car for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Nixon home in Saddle River, N.J. Tricia and Ed Cox usually arrive from Manhattan with their son, Christopher, 7. Jennie looks on her famous grandparents from a pint-size perspective. “Ma,” as she calls Pat, loves to play circus with her granddaughter. “She’s the ringmaster. I’m an animal. And Ba is fun, too. He likes to swim. He comes in and plays shark. You know, I don’t mind that he was a President, though everyone asks if I live in a mansion. I tell them no. Just because he was a President doesn’t mean you’re rich.” Or, if you try very hard, it might not mean that you’re all that different from everybody else.