On October 4th, Jim Newton’s Presidential biography, Eisenhower: The White House Years arrives in bookstores.
This is exciting news. Not just because the author is a very dear friend of mine – but because I can’t think of a more apropos time since his Presidency ended in 1960 for us to look back on Ike’s two terms in the Oval Office.
My buddy Jim Newton is a veteran newspaperman who began his career at the New York Times. Since I’ve known him, he’s been an editor at the Los Angeles Times, where he’s now the editor-at-large. In 2006, Jim wrote a definitive biography of Chief Justice Earl Warren entitled, Justice for All.
Hold on. It was Republican who put the classic “activist judge” Earl Warren on the Supreme Court?
Indeed. And that’s just one of the reasons it’s a good time to revisit the Eisenhower Presidency.
More than a half-century after Dwight D. Eisenhower left office, his old campaign slogan “I like Ike” has become a cliché. But, in this era of Tea Party Republicans and Ronald Reagan worship, it’s nostalgic to recall a Republican President who would never have said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
That kind of simplistic, anti-government demagoguery would not have appealed to the complex man who built our interstate highway system and sent Federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce school desegregation.
In a move that would be anathema to today’s dogmatic GOP states’ rights defenders, Ike ordered units from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock on September 24, 1957. The next day, those soldiers escorted nine black students through the front door of Central High and into its formerly all-white classrooms. Of course, Ike had some previous experience with the paratroopers of the 101st. 13 years earlier in a little dustup called D-Day on June 6th, 1944. The Screaming Eagles followed Ike’s orders into their drop zones behind the beaches at Normandy – and into the hallways of a Little Rock high school.
But Jim’s book is not about General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander who led his forces to victory in World War Two. It’s about the Eisenhower, who, like George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant, went from the highest-ranking military leader in an epochal war to Commander in Chief as the thirty-fourth President of the United States.
I was born in 1958 during Ike’s second term, but John F. Kennedy was the first President that I was aware of – and my first clear memory of Kennedy was watching his funeral on TV.
During my boyhood, President Eisenhower was a distant figure: even more dimly remembered than General Eisenhower, the hero of D-Day and all those World War Two movies I loved and re-created in my backyard.
By the time I was in high school, my sense was that Eisenhower’s Presidency, if I thought of it at all, didn’t amount to much. He was a dull President in a dull time. Thank goodness, 16-year old Paul didn’t write the book on Ike.
I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking of Eisenhower as little more than the Caretaker-in-Chief, hitting the links with Bob Hope and presiding over an easygoing, black & white, “Leave It To Beaver” American society. Long after I graduated from college in 1980 that was still the prevailing attitude about Ike’s time in the Oval Office. There was, however, residual gratitude on the Democratic Left for Eisenhower’s lukewarm endorsement of Vice President Dick Nixon in the 1960 race against Kennedy.
Pressed by reporters to give an example of Nixon making a key contribution to his administration, Ike said, “Give me a week and I’ll think of one!” Priceless. Nixon went on to lose to Kennedy in one of the tightest Presidential races in American history. Nixon got the last laugh, though. Not only did Tricky Dick win the White House eight years later – that same year, 1968, Nixon’s daughter Julie won the hand of Ike’s grandson David in marriage.
But, looking back at Ike’s Presidency, it’s hard to imagine why, as a callow youth, I thought his time in office so inconsequential. Eisenhower was the second President to have an atomic bomb in his arsenal — and he refused to use it. He kept radical anti-Communist McCarthyism at arm’s length until it became, as he called it, “McCarthywasm.”
And, after lifting the nation out of its post World War Two debt, he was the last president until Democrat Bill Clinton to leave office with a budget surplus. The top marginal tax rate under Eisenhower was 91%. George W. Bush slashed that rate to 35%. Ike paid for WWII and built our highway system. George W. Bush built nothing and left us in debt to China.
For these, and many more reasons, this lifelong Democrat likes Ike. And I like Jim’s book. But you don’t have to depend upon my endorsement (which is so much more enthusiastic than Ike’s backing of Nixon) – you can just check out these amazing reviews…
“A truly great book, spirited, balanced, and not just the story of President Eisenhower but of an era.” Bob Woodward
“Jim Newton does a masterful job illustrating the forces that confronted Dwight Eisenhower during his years in the White House, from nuclear politics to race relations to the federal debt and deficit. He paints a vivid portrait of a president struggling to find middle ground—sometimes successfully, sometimes not — but always with the good of the country in mind.” Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Senator ”
“Newton’s contribution is as cogent an inventory of Eisenhower’s White House years as I’ve ever read… This is a book for all who are interested in a better understanding of how America and the World were shaped post–WWII and for those who aspire to lead: Read Newton’s book first.” Chuck Hagel, U.S. Senator (1997–2009)
“Ike’s wisdom, born of experience and intellect, is on display in this important book, which heightens appreciation for his leadership. Newton reveals, for instance, that after the Korean War, only one American soldier was killed in combat during Eisenhower’s presidency. This volume contributes to our understanding of an outstanding human being.” George P. Shultz, 60th U.S. Secretary of State
“Jim Newton’s brilliant reassessment of Eisenhower’s presidency is long overdue, and his book makes it clear that Ike was indeed a great president. Ike’s insistence on always doing the right thing for the country despite party pressure and personal predilection serves as a valuable model for politicians in all three branches of government.” Former FBI Director, William S. Sessions.
I still like Ike.
Now more than ever.*
* With apologies to Nixon’s 1972 campaign.