The universe of the play is American politics. For anyone who seeks and gains political office, there are two (not necessarily, and certainly not always) competing drives. One is personal ambition - the hunger to win and be recognized. The other is service - applying one’s talents in the best possible way to serve the constituency of the office. Nowhere are these two drives more visible and significant than where the U.S. Presidency is involved.
Ike, in the play - and I believe in fact - represents the public service drive. He is already a hero - in fact his election as President doesn’t really elevate his standing as a public hero. He is reluctant to enter the arena - doesn’t truly get in until motivated by his fear of what a Taft presidency and an isolationist view of the would mean. I’m not suggesting that Ike wasn’t also driven by ambition. No one does what he did without that. But his ambitions support his commitment to serve his country.
Nixon -from his first entry into politics is driven by fierce ambition and the desire to be somebody - to get as high on the ladder (president) as he can get. His priority is to win. Here again, it is not that Nixon has no interest in doing good with the positions he is elected to - but his good works are chips played toward gaining the recognition he seeks. (Chotiner represents the extreme of the ambition side and
In a sense, Ike is the citizen-soldier, the last of his kind (so far) in US presidential politics. Nixon represents politics as it was and is – where the prime drive is to achieve. His side tells us quite a bit about where we (as a society) are today. The use of special interest to raise money to gain exposure, the cultivation of image, and the polling/focus group-research done to make positions conform to voter prejudice are all tools of the candidate who’s aim is primarily to win and fulfill ambition. Think Karl Rove, the current counterpart of Chotiner.
The relationship between Ike and Dick ties into this conflict. Dick (the younger, less experienced man) is thrust upon Ike. He is, if not the son, at least put in the position of adopted or maybe foster son. And Ike - historically, as well as in the play, repeatedly sees Dick’s ambition as at odds with Ike’s view of public service. It is not that Ike doesn’t want Dick to succeed - it is that he is frustrated and disappointed. This theme starts from the moment the two meet and runs through the end of the first Act and all of the second. An analogy that comes to mind is the comment supposedly made by the senior Steinway when his son came up with ways to improve the bottom line by using the name to market more price-accessible pianos. “But we’d have to make one change,” the father said. “Take the name, Steinway, off the piano.” I need to say here that I’m not talking about personal qualities or even ‘character’ in other than the limited sense I’ve described. Nixon is the more introspective man - his memoirs are far more honest than Ike’s. Nixon to my mind is more loyal (you could say he had to be because that’s where his bread was being buttered). In some ways Nixon (despite the moniker ‘Tricky Dick’) is more direct in his dealing with people than Ike - more willing to confront adversity and controversy. But these personal issues don’t alter the basic conflict between service and ambition. To my mind they make the conflict more complex and interesting.
The first scene of the play introduces the idea. Nixon and Dewey are engaged on the ambition side. How does Dick get ahead? How can Dewey get help from