Thursday, August 04, 2016

Reconsidering Ike: A Thought Experiment

I came of political age (I will not say "maturity) during the Eisenhower administration.  Instructed by Herblock, I thought of him as an amiable doofus with a pretty good golf handicap.  Time and the great scholarship of Fred Greenstein have taught me different.  The doofus part was largely an act, a cover.  Meanwhile, I wonder how anybody could have thought the the man who commanded the winning armies in one of the most successful wars in human history should be dismissed so liability.  I've come round to the point of saying (with a glint of wry irony) the Ike was really the best president of my adulthood.  He was, after all, a champion of stability and good order at home.  And the man who sent the troops into Little Rock.  And the one who warned us against the military-industrial complex.

And yet, and yet.  He tolerated McCarthy for far too long.  He tolerated John Foster Dulles until the day (Dulles) died.  He gave us George Humphries, "Engine Charlie" Wilson and Ezra Taft Benson. Is that really the best we can do?

Well, he certainly wasn't perfect.  But on the "tolerate" thing.  I think it is fair to say that one essential quality in a great general is that he knows how to pick his  fights: he wants to battle on his chosen turf, and on his own terms.  Isn't it fair to say that with McCarthy, at least--yes, he did not move early, and he seemed at times almost not to notice the mischief the great ruffian was causing. But what if he had injected himself earlier?  Would he have, in fact, succeeded--or could it be that he would have damaged himself, while leaving McCarthy even stronger than he had been  before.  With Dulles, I suppose the case is harder.  Ike seemed to acquiesce in a good deal of the foreign interventionism--Iran, Guatemala--that looks so misguided today.  At the same time, one always had the sense that Dulles' most unsettling excesses were Dulles freelancing, with little or no support from the less excitable chief executive down he street.  Civil rights--complicated again, I think.  When he sent in the troops, I think the general view was the he was far more offended by the affront to federal authority than he was by the plight of black students.  Yet I don't think it is fair to call Ike racist in any modern sense.  His flaw was more that he simply didn't get it: he had known (seemingly) happy Pullman porters, officer's club waiters and such like, and he didn't understand why their fellows weren't willing to settle for their place.  A failure of imagination, surely--and a failure of imagination can be a failure. But it is not the same as active racial hostility.

And yet, and yet.  I'm very far from totally convinced of my own case.  I do think there is a lot to respect in his domestic record (and admire in his war record).  I wish he had done more, or done it better.  I suppose in the end I fall back on the first principle of modern politics: the job of every Republican president is to make the last guy look good.  By that standard, I think he looks pretty good indeed.


Steve Reynolds said...

Eisenhower does look better sixty plus years later. Boring compared to JFK and LBJ. Boring is starting to look better as well. One of my earliest political memories (mid 60's) was that my mom was still upset that Stevenson wasn't elected. (She is still a bit miffed.) A friend's mother explained what being an Eisenhower Republican meant; we wear white shirts and we are nice to people.

Buce said...

Adlai was the first in a long line of emotionally stunted overachievers who carried the Demo banner afflicted by an utter incapacity to make contact with the mass of voters. Yes, Gore, Kerry, and remember Bill Bradley and Gary Hart? I think it is Alistair Cooke who said he knew half a dozen women who assured (Cooke) that Adlai was just about to marry them when he died.

"We'd lay Adlai," mildly funny UMC joke, would have counted as poor taste down at the sport bar.

White shirts--probably one reason I disliked them so much.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Three things on Ike.
- I suspect him of hiring a speech coach to learn how to mispronounce "nuclear" correctly.
- I'm a bit amazed that a skilled bureaucratic politician (as Ike had been in the military) turned out to be such a skilled electoral politician. Very different skill sets. Can you imagine Henry Kissinger running for even dogcatcher? Or consider the failed presidency of Herbert Hoover, maybe the best administrator to occupy the White House.
- I think our host lets him off a bit too easy on civil rights. Since we all agree that he was one of the smartest men to occupy that office, he was surely aware of Truman's desegregation, Jackie Robinson, and the long slow legal campaign that was about to culminate in Brown v. Board. (Or even the Hayes Code, which is designed in part as a reaction to Birth of a Nation.) I think that Ike's sin was viewing the civil rights struggle as a second-tier pain in the ass that had to be managed, rather than one of the two or three central issues of his presidency.

Buce said...

Did Ike really say New-kew-lar? I didn't own a TV set in those days, so maybe I just never heard him. Of course i remember W.

Totally agree re Hoover--a point a lot of people seem to miss when they tell me how good Hillary is at her job.

Re civil rights, I don't see where we disagree.