How could I not like Ike -- President Dwight D. Eisenhower? As an elementary school child growing up in World War II Britain, my father served under Eisenhower's command from D-Day until Germany's surrender. Together with my fellow students and our teachers, I marked the progress of the Allies through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany by attaching miniature British and American flags to a classroom wall map of Western Europe, as each advance was reported by the BBC. Ike was our Supreme Commander who led us to victory in Europe and we liked him a lot.
Award-winning scholar Jean Edward Smith's new biography, Eisenhower: In War and Peace, provides a detailed portrait of a man of humble origins but remarkable talent who organized and mounted the monumental international effort that secured victory. Later, he used the same planning and political skills that were required to pull off that unprecedented undertaking, including the management of the notoriously large egos of his American generals, especially Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, as well as Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill and France's haughty General Charles De Gaulle, to lead America through eight years of peace and prosperity.
Reading about Eisenhower makes one yearn for the days when Republican presidents could be relied upon to act in the best interests of the country -- the whole country -- and not assiduously advance the special interests of big money, big banks, big corporations, and big fossil fuels. Smith's new book covers some familiar territory but also provides new information about Eisenhower that elicits fond memories of a president who did not try to make us a theocracy, as the current batch of Republican candidates, from Romney and Ryan on down the entire ticket, are intent on doing.
Strongly averse to the flamboyant and self-aggrandizing behavior exhibited by too many public officials, Ike preferred to accomplish what needed to be done by careful planning, effective communication, and excellent relationships with both superiors and subordinates. As Smith documents, his low-key, ego-free style of command enabled him to accomplish victory in Europe and he exercised this same "hidden hand" style of leadership in the White House with equal, if less dramatic, success.
He was so successful in this regard that he developed a reputation among political commentators -- and even some biographers -- for being disconnected, lazy or out of his depth. Because he loved golf and was frequently photographed at play or on his way to or from a golf course, his reputation as a disconnected or do-nothing president was reinforced. As Smith notes, there were folks who characterized him as "a full-time golfer who moonlighted as President" and a bumper sticker appeared during his 1956 re-election campaign that read: BEN HOGAN FOR PRESIDENT -- IF WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A GOLFER, LET'S HAVE A GOOD ONE.
Smith argues persuasively that this type of criticism of Eisenhower ignores his countless accomplishments, such as ending the Korean War in a cease-fire rather than the much more dangerous escalation. Like Ulysses S. Grant, he was a gifted soldier who hated war, in contrast with today's chicken hawks and draft dodgers who are only too eager to send other people's family members into battle. He stabilized the Cold War while reducing the defense budget, and warned against the dangers posed to American society by the growing military/industrial complex.
In the domestic arena, he balanced the budget, oversaw an economy that increased everyone's standard of living, expanded Social Security coverage to 10 million self-employed farmers, doctors and other professionals, and raised the minimum wage to a level that, adjusted for inflation, exceeds the current hourly rate. In addition, the Interstate Highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway project that he initiated were huge economic stimulus programs.
Despite being faulted for dragging his feet on civil liberties, he completed the desegregation process of all branches of the military that President Harry Truman began. He appointed Earl Warren Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and his Justice Department presented the government's argument for desegregation in the Brown case. He also sent the U.S. Army (not the National Guard) to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court's order to desegregate the public schools in Arkansas. In keeping with his preferred low-key style, he orchestrated the actions that led to the discrediting of Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist witch-hunts and the Senate censure of McCarthy that effectively ended his political career.
Smith summarizes Eisenhower's character and legacy in the following terms:
"[He was] a man of principle, decency, and common sense, whom the country could count on to do what was right. In both war and peace he gave the world confidence in American leadership."
He adds that Ike was a "progressive conservative" based on his conviction that "traditional American values encompassed change and progress." Contrary to popular perceptions and much academic orthodoxy, Smith concludes that, second only to Franklin Roosevelt, Ike was America's most successful 20th century president.
It would be reassuring if the leaders of today's Republican Party came close to matching Eisenhower's integrity and accomplishments. As a long-time Democrat who is actively supporting President Barak Obama's re-election, I would be much less distressed if he lost to a Republican like Ike than to the current slate which is intent on selling the country to the highest bidder, destroying the middle class, condemning the poor, elderly and sick to whatever fate awaits them, laying waste the environment, and pandering to an extreme Christian Right that is committed to waging a take-no-prisoners holy war on women and anyone else who does not share their beliefs. It is no accident that none of these folks is running as an Eisenhower Republican -- which is a great pity for the party and the country.