The Wisdom of Ike

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In my last post about my experience in the 50s, I touched on the politics of that decade but focused mostly on how the people I knew in my hometown of Chester, PA reacted to them. Today I consider the politicians of the 50s very interesting, especially President Eisenhower. One reason I consider him more interesting than his successors is that much of what we thought of him and his presidency back then, in retrospect, turned out to be wrong.

As I said in my last post, many people considered him to be boring and not too bright; to many, he was a do-nothing president, although he was highly popular through all of his time in office. All he appeared to do is play golf, and he didn’t mind that the press gleefully published photo after photo of him on the links with his rich friends. The press photographers  particularly liked it when Eisenhower was wearing some silly looking hat.

Ike’s two time opponent Adlai Stevenson came across as highly intelligent, if not particularly attractive or exciting. He was an elegant extemporaneous speaker and his prepared speeches were as well, even if they contained no particularly memorable lines that I can recall. Eisenhower was, on the other hand, a poor extemporaneous speaker whose “fractured syntax” (as it was called back then) often left his listeners confused. Some blamed Ike’s often puzzling use of words on the heart attack and stroke he suffered while in office.

The best portrait of Eisenhower and that era that I’ve read is the book Nixon Agonistes by Garry Wills, published in 1970. Wills’s analysis of Eisenhower’s personality and his view of the presidency is fascinating and transforms the image that most people had of him.

As Wills sees it, Eisenhower understood that the American people were exhausted after having endured the Great Depression, World War II, the invention and use of the atomic bomb, and the Korean War. What the veterans and all Americans needed was a return to normal life which meant for the middle class: acquiring an education, pursuing a career, and raising a family. Thus, despite the continuing Cold War with its threat of nuclear annihilation, Eisenhower did everything he could to minimize their effect on American life. Ike was the role model of the 50’s – the relaxed, successful man who, when he wasn’t working, enjoyed playing golf.

There was some Cold War activity during Eisenhower’s tenure, but none of it led to the brink of war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. One event was the Suez Crisis in which Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt to remove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser from power after he “nationalized” the Suez Canal. Eisenhower took the lead in defusing the conflict by pressuring the invading countries to withdrawal. There were some CIA coups, for example, in Iran. That CIA operation came back to haunt us in the 70’s when Islamists overthrew the Shah and took American diplomats and other embassy employees hostage. But at the time, these events were barely noticed by most Americans.

Eisenhower is often criticized for his apparent passivity concerning two crucial domestic issues during his time in office: the Civil Rights Movement and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower didn’t say or do anything about the plight of blacks until the Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education ruling in 1954.  Before that, his inaction was partly due to his concern that the communists would use the movement for anti-American propaganda. But after the Brown decision, he was on firm legal ground in sending troops to integrate Little Rock, Arkansas’s Central High School. One thing he never wanted to do is have a personal fight with some segregationist governor. But the Brown decision made that unnecessary because he could defend his actions as enforcing the Supreme Court’s decision, without, as I recall, even mentioning segregationist Arkansas governor Orville Faubus’s name.

The same is true about the way he handled McCarthy. Eisenhower despised McCarthy, most especially when he claimed former army general and secretary of state George Marshall was a part of  “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Eisenhower was also incensed when McCarthy accused the Army of being “soft on communism.” He toyed with the idea of attacking McCarthy directly; he even made a speech which contained such an attack in the text, but he left that part out when he delivered it. But as Garry Wills points out, Eisenhower refused to get down in the gutter with McCarthy. He believed that when President Truman spoke out against McCarthy, he “created a monster.” In other words when the President goes after an individual, he gives a demagogue like McCarthy presidential prestige which demeans the office and raises up the stature of the target. Eisenhower decided that the best way to fight McCarthy was to ignore him. Eventually McCarthy self-destructed.

Although Eisenhower was very popular throughout his two terms, Democrats and the press still thought of him as a boring, amiable dope. Newsman Walter Cronkite tells the story of the time CBS News president Fred Friendly came to him with the idea of doing a show commemorating a D-Day anniversary in which Cronkite and Eisenhower would go to Normandy, and Cronkite would interview Eisenhower about his recollections of D-Day and the war.

Cronkite’s reaction was that such a program had to be extremely dull because Eisenhower was extremely dull. Also the show was to be broadcast in 1964, and Cronkite believed that time would have taken its toll on the former president, especially because of the heart attack and stroke he had suffered. Cronkite was a military reporter during the war and shared the conventional wisdom most soldiers believed about Eisenhower and most of their superiors, that they didn’t know what they were doing; and that if they (the ordinary soldiers) were running the war, things would be a lot better. Although its origin is unknown, I believe the acronym Snafu came from the second World War (situation normal, all fucked up), and represented the view of many GIs. Jack Kennedy, who had been in the Navy, thought much the same about Eisenhower, whom he referred to as “the old man.”

Despite his misgivings, Cronkite did the interview and was amazed that Eisenhower had total recall of the D-Day battle and the war. The New York Times was also surprised at the depth of Ike’s memory of minute details of the war. As I said earlier Jack Kennedy viewed Ike much the same way as Cronkite; that is, until he met with the former president after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He too was impressed by Eisenhower’s wise advice and knowledge which completely changed his view of “the old man.”

Which brings me to Donald Trump. I reluctantly voted for Trump, mostly because of what the Democratic Party has become, the party of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Joseph Epstein put it well in an op-ed piece yesterday in the Wall Street Journal,  “I… feared that the country was sinking slowly downhill under Democratic leadership – with its stagnant economy; its foreign policy failures; its sad identity politics; its poorly performing educational system, from central-city public schools to high price universities.” Although I am happy to see the back of the Clintons, I don’t think any Democratic candidate would be different; any one of them would try to further push us down the path that Obama set us on, which is to transform the country into a European style social democratic system with confiscatory tax rates and cradle to grave welfare for all.

So Trump was the only alternative. Since he has taken office, Trump has proven to me that he doesn’t know how or doesn’t want to act like a president should act. To be sure, I think a lot of the criticism of the “travel ban” is overstated since any program that involves the vetting of thousands of refugees is unlikely to run smoothly. I have read that the vetting of a refugee takes eighteen to twenty-four months; that alone is likely to draw much criticism. No, it is the what he said to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that I find really disturbing.  His answer to O’Reilly’s observation that Putin is a killer was that we have killers here too. This is the worst kind of moral equivalence, a favorite argument of the far left. It was dangerous when Obama did it, but it is much more disturbing when a Republican president does it. Also I have read that Trump rejects the idea of American exceptionalism which I take to mean that America is the only country with the resources and military power to protect the Free World. Trump says that American exceptionalism is “an insult” to other countries which puts him in the same boat as Obama, Sanders and Warren.

Then there are the constant attacks on anyone who criticizes him via tweets. President Eisenhower understood that it is a fool’s errand to attack your opponents, a lesson that  Trump better learn. I consider Trump distasteful and vulgar, but I voted for him anyway because I feared the alternative more. But there is a limit. Spouting off the arguments of the far left and obsessively tweeting attacks on critics brings me close to supporting a President Pence.

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