Why Ike Deserves Better

Scott noted here the other day the travesty that is the proposed Eisenhower memorial, to which I can’t add more to the aesthetic critique.  But it is worth recalling for a moment or two why Ike deserves a monument.

Remember that throughout the 1950s and beyond Eisenhower was reviled by all fashionable people as a feeble leader and a poor president.  A survey of historians in 1961 ranked Eisenhower below such forgotten 19th century chief executives as Chester Arthur.  Humorists of the time said that Eisenhower proved that the United States didn’t need a president.  Then there was the “Eisenhower Doll”—wind it up and is stood there for eight years.  Above all, the smart intellectuals said, Ike was “dumb.”  He was thought to be so much a creature of his staff that one joke went that while it would be bad if Eisenhower died and Vice President Richard Nixon became president, it would be even worse if Ike’s chief of staff Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president.  The 1950s were, as one liberal writer put it, the “yawning years of Eisenhower,” gray, conformist, uncreative, even stifling.  And it was somehow Ike’s fault.

All this has changed.  And here we should give credit where credit is due: it was the smarter liberals who first started revising upward their judgments of Ike, starting most famously with Murray Kempton in 1967.  Kempton wrote:

The Eisenhower who emerges [in his memoirs] intermittently free from his habitual veils is the President most superbly equipped for truly consequential decision we may ever have had, a mind neither rash nor hesitant, free of the slightest concern for how things might look, indifferent to any sentiment, as calm when he was demonstrating the wisdom of leaving a bad situation alone as when he was moving to meet it on those occasions when he absolutely had to. . .

He was the great tortoise upon whose back the world sat for eight years.  We laughed at him; we talked wistfully about moving; and all the while we never knew the cunning beneath the shell.

And the other early witness, fresh from his transition to the left, was Garry Wills, who wrote:

He took over a nation at war, a people fearful of atomic holocaust and poisoned milk.  He left office to a man who cried for more missiles and for shock troops to fight guerrilla wars by helicopter. . .  Eisenhower had the true professional’s instinct for making things look easy.  He appeared to be performing less work than he actually did.  And he wanted it that way.  An air of ease inspires confidence.  The singer’s hard work should be done at home.  On stage, the voice should soar as by natural gift.

The real transformation of Eisenhower’s reputation among scholars came with Fred Greenstein’s book, The Hidden Hand Presidency.  Greenstein is an excellent case study in the academic cluelessness of liberals, for Greenstein admits that he doesn’t sympathize or agree with many of Eisenhower’s policies and decisions.  But it makes him incapable of answering his own excellent question: “How and why could a president who was as politically alert and engaged as Eisenhower was have been judged by his contemporaries to be the opposite?”

The answer is simple: Eisenhower didn’t conform to the post-Wilson, post-FDR liberal model of ideal presidents as “miracle workers,” relentlessly “leading” the American people to new and distant places according to some abstract and ambitious “vision.”  In style and conduct (though not so much in policy), Ike was the anti-Wilson, the anti-FDR.  Eisenhower conducted the presidency much more like a 19th century president, that is to say, more like how the Founders intended the office to be conducted.  He saw himself more as the “presiding” officer, taking care that the laws are faithfully executed.  In fact, utterly unique among modern presidents, Eisenhower offered no legislative program at all to Congress in his first year in office, even though the Republican Party had just won a majority in Congress in the 1952 election.  Eisenhower said at the time that he wanted to “restore the balance” between the branches, which flew in the face of the received liberal wisdom that the president, rather than Congress as specified by the Founders, should be the center of gravity in our political system.

No wonder Ike was one of the three presidents upon whom Reagan drew as models of how to conduct a successful presidency.

More of course, in a new book on this subject.


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