March 25, 2012
When I was a grad student at Penn State, former President Dwight Eisenhower visited the campus. It wasn’t a public event; he was speaking to a group of students from State College High School. But I was working in the public information office and found out about it and simply walked into Waring Hall at the appointed time. It was 1964 — a different era. Nobody asked who I was.
Eisenhower had been out of office for about four years. He was 74 and had suffered heart attacks and a stroke. Still, he stood at the edge of the stage with his head high and his shoulders back — in short, with the military bearing long associated with him. He encouraged those kids to take an interest in civic affairs and not to expect other folks to do all the work either inside or outside of government.
Eisenhower had been an iconic figure in our house, both because of his role in World War II and because he had kept the presidency out of Democratic hands for eight years.
Some of the family’s faith in Ike was well placed, even given the straight party-line mentality, but of course he was more complicated than he was portrayed around our place.
And, in fact, the Dwight Eisenhower that Jim Newton describes in Eisenhower: The White House Years is a complicated guy. While he was still in office, especially during his second term, he was often lampooned as an absentee president who golfed while the Soviets and Chinese plotted to conquer the world.
While it’s true that Eisenhower tried to fit golf and bridge into his routine, that characterization seemed ludicrous at the time, and Newton demonstrates well that it was fantasy. He shows that, on balance, Eisenhower’s administration, which kept the United States out of a shooting war for eight years, launched the interstate highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway, and left the country with its last budget surplus until 1999, was an overall success.
Newton doesn’t discuss this in detail in this book, but Eisenhower’s achievements as supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II were in a significant way due to his firm but understated command as well as his personal diplomacy as he coordinated military officers and heads of state who had little or nothing in common except an enemy.
Similar qualities came into play when Eisenhower took on the presidency. He wasn’t inclined to the grand gesture, and his credo was what he called “the middle way,” meaning that on any issue he looked for the ground that was equidistant from extremes on either right or left.
Meanwhile, while Ike might have seemed like a man obsessed with cutting down on his slice, he was engaging in intense discussions concerning the rising belligerence of the Soviets and Chinese, more than once talking his military brass out of resorting to nuclear weapons. He was also overseeing covert activities undertaken by the CIA to overthrow foreign governments whose behavior was perceived as inimical to American interests — Iran and Guatemala among them. Eisenhower also made flight-by-flight decisions about high altitude surveillance of the USSR, and his administration was embarrassed when one of the planes was shot down and the pilot captured.
From our perspective, two of the most disappointing things about Eisenhower were his unwillingness to take the lead on civil rights for black citizens and his public silence about the demagoguery of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Eisenhower was content with the concept of “separate but equal,” and he was unhappy with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs the Board of Education. When the Board of Education in Little Rock, Arkansas, decided to obey the spirit of that ruling by admitting nine black teenagers to Central High School, there was immediately a crisis of authority as Gov. Orval Faubus, the Arkansas National Guard, and a howling white mob prevented the kids from entering. Eisenhower tried to finesse the problem by summoning Faubus to Washington and bargaining with him, but Faubus double-crossed Ike by withdrawing both the National Guard and himself from the scene. So Eisenhower was forced to do something distasteful to him, sending members of the 101st Airborne Division, with bayonets fixed, to escort the students into the school.
Eisenhower didn’t say or do anything publicly about McCarthy’s paranoid campaign of terror against real and imagined communists until the senator overreached and directed his venom at the U.S. Army. Then the president issued an order forbidding employees of the executive department from providing evidence to McCarthy’s committee.
Eisenhower’s reticence concerning McCarthy extended to the point that Ike let McCarthy pillory Gen. George Marshall, Ike’s mentor and possibly the man he most admired. Eisenhower ostensibly regretted that for the rest of his life, but the damage had been done.
Newton probably is a little easy on Eisenhower, but if he is, he’s easy on a man who led one of the most unselfish and productive lives of public service in American history, a life untouched by the personal and professional corruption and the blind partisanship that has affected major figures in American history before and after him.
The motto of Eisenhower’s election campaign — “I like Ike” — was particularly apt. He had his flaws as we all do, but the quality of his public service flowed to a large extent from his character: He was a nice man.