Dwight the moderate

By Bill Felber

EISENHOWER. The White House Years. Jim Newton. Doubleday. 2011. 357 pages. $29.95.

I was a kid when Dwight Eisenhower was president. One of my earliest memories was of my father, a Roosevelt Democrat and a would-be intellectual, working our Chicago neighborhood for Adlai Stevenson in November of 1956. I could not comprehend how the rest of the nation could fail to back my dad’s candidate. I was seven at the time.

Within a few years, my expanded appreciation for historical context clarified the hold Eisenhower held upon the country at that time. Eventually, too, I came to appreciate what as a child had seemed so wrong. Ike hadn’t become president because of his grandfatherly nature but because his background meshed so beautifully with his certain political instincts.

Jim Newton’s “Eisenhower” is first and foremost a politician. This book traipses lightly through the years prior to 1952, but its focus, as the title asserts, is the eight-year period when he was the leader of the free world.

One of the jarring aspects of the book, I might add, occurs in an early chapter and relates a trip made by Herbert Brownell, later attorney general but at the time a Republican advisor, to the Paris offices of NATO to feel Eisenhower out about seeking the GOP nomination. The jarring aspect is the date of the meeting: March of 1952.

That’s less than four months before the nominating convention, and the man who will be elected was only then being courted by his party. Compare that with the political calendar today.

By the way, Ike said yes.

He was sought out — by both parties, actually — because he was sort of a tabula rasa candidate.

Eisenhower had few if any core political values, and at heart was a conciliator. Today he would be viewed as a moderate, which was actually a pretty apt description in 1952 as well given the strength of the party’s hard-core conservative wing led by Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, his principal opponent for nomination.

Once Ike got in, there was not a great amount of doubt that he would win both nomination and election.

In fact he won a first-ballot nomination and trounced Stevenson in the electoral college by 442-89, an election in which two-thirds of American adults cast ballots.

In office, Ike tended to look for a middle way, although he acted when cornered.

There is probably no clearer example of this than his handling of the desegregation issue.

Left to his own devices, Newton believes that Eisenhower probably would not have pushed the question on the theory that the nation — by which he predominantly meant the white south — was not yet ready for it. Eisenhower’s big mistake in this respect was fulfilling a campaign promise to give the first vacancy on the Supreme Court to California Gov. Earl Warren in return for Warren’s willingness to give way to Ike in the nomination fight.

Unlike Eisenhower, Warren was all too willing to push the desegregation issue, culminating in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

The decision did not force Eisenhower’s hand, but the south’s defiance of it did. Eisenhower may have preferred a slower approach, but he would not tolerate defiance of the law, so when the Little Rock school district refused to integrate schools he sent in federal troops.

His initial approach to desegregation illustrates one of the really fascinating political aspects of Eisenhower. He may have been the last person to enter the Oval Office without a clearly defined domestic political agenda. Certainly he stood for things — peace, jobs, low taxes, a free market — but they constituted less programs and methods than ideals. Kennedy followed Eisenhower, riding into offices on a Cold War agenda that could be summed up in two words: missile gap. Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan all brought agendas. Ike. Not really.

This absence of a defined and structure governmental theme has often led to the conclusion that Ike was a relatively passive president more interested in playing golf, bridge or poker than in changing the world.

It’s certainly true that Eisenhower held no brief for changing the world — although he had every intention of preserving it. Let’s put it this way: the nation’s 34th president brought no illusions regarding his own superiority into office with him.

Newton’s Eisenhower is not as deeply sketched a portrait as, for example, Stephen Ambrose’s Eisenhower. If you want the full picture, Ambrose is still the way to go. But if you’ll settle for a moderately deep examination of the White House years alone, you’ll find Newton more than adequate.

Bill Felber is executive editor of The Mercury.

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