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Eisenhower (left) with Nixon in 1952
Associated Press
Eisenhower (left) with Nixon in 1952

Grand stories

2013 Books Issue | A look at Nixon as VP, a tour of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, and a history of Thomas Becket’s battle with a king

Issue: "Terrific and timely," June 29, 2013

Three history books are on our short list, and here are three more—one hugely entertaining, one engaging in its account of realized architectural beauty, one relevant to our own church/state battles—that could also have made it. 

The entertaining history read is Ike and Dick by Jeffrey Frank (Simon & Schuster), the story of President Dwight Eisenhower’s relationship with his vice president, Richard Nixon. Frank, from a Washington Post background, charts their awkward, combative, and one-sided relationship through Eisenhower’s presidency and beyond—and even the conversations between first lady Mamie Eisenhower and second lady Pat Nixon are cringe-inducing. 

Frank tells the story mostly from Nixon’s perspective and almost generates sympathy for the man. The author contrasts Eisenhower—popular war general with television-era charm and without (so it appeared) a political bone in his body—with the crass, insecure, politically calculating Nixon. Nixon does Eisenhower’s dirty political work, while Eisenhower floats along and allows Nixon to suffer any repercussions by himself. Frank portrays Nixon over the years as desperate for Eisenhower’s approval, which he never obtains, though Nixon mythically describes Eisenhower saluting him on his deathbed. 

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Frank makes readers feel they are looking into an oncoming train. Eisenhower initially tried to get Nixon to resign from the ticket soon after he had chosen him as a running mate. He then kept Nixon at a distance throughout his presidency, with a sad result: Nixon “was beginning to understand that when it came to his own future, the only one he could rely upon was himself, and his own devices.” We watch Nixon before he crossed major legal lines and wonder what Eisenhower, or anyone, might have done in those years to steer Nixon away from his desperate machinations. Frank barely touches on Watergate because he doesn’t need to, and Nixon’s life comes across as less malevolent than tragic.

Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by Sam Roberts (Grand Central Publishing) is the engaging book about the celestial-ceilinged station that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Roberts tells how the station was built and continues its history up to the present day, looking at how it survived demolition attempts in the ever-changing city. When officials sought to raze the terminal in 1954 in favor of a skyscraper, a group of architects wrote a letter pleading for the terminal’s preservation, saying, “It belongs in fact to the nation. … The most exacting architectural critic agrees in essentials with the newsboy at the door.” 

Grand Central—with trains and shops and restaurants—was one of the first multi-use buildings in America, and one of the first places to sell “air rights,” real estate literally in the air above the train platforms. It fared much better than its sister terminal, New York’s lovely Penn Station, which suffered demolition so the concrete-silo Madison Square Garden could emerge. Roberts describes Grand Central’s secret stairways, its backdoor exit that only presidents use, and its nuclear-fallout basement, currently the deepest basement in New York. The book is very approachable, with pictures throughout. (You’re best off buying the actual, mini-coffee-table-type book, not an e-book.)

• John Guy’s Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel (Random House) chronicles the 12th-century clergyman’s rise from middle-class Londoner to loyal chancellor of Henry II to bitter enemy of the same king. His murder by Henry’s minions rocked Europe and continues to reverberate today in battles over religious liberty.  

Becket is not a hagiography. Guy admires Becket but also tells of his imperfections, some of which seem to stem from insecurities over his middle-class upbringing. Guy skillfully tells the story of Becket’s rise, and the book becomes a true page-turner when we see Becket become an archbishop. Becket was first thought of as Henry’s man in Canterbury, but he turned out to be more like his predecessor Anselm: a bulldog in defense of the church and its liberties.

Becket and Henry quickly clashed over the issue of “criminous clerks”—priests and other church officials accused of crimes like murder and rape. Becket wanted them tried in church courts as was becoming customary in Europe, while Henry wanted them to face royal justice. Had the battle not gone beyond this issue, Henry would have been biblically correct, although Guy doesn’t say so or seem to think so. But Henry’s true endgame was royal control over the church in England, and he soon tried to require the church to obey other “ancestral customs” that were made up out of whole cloth. Henry wanted, among other things, veto power over appeals to the pope and over some sentences of excommunication. He also wanted control over international travel by priests and over revenues from vacant bishoprics and abbeys.

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