Far too many readers assume history is a quaintly irrelevant retelling of wars or migrations or depressions, and far too many such books bear that out by forgetting that it is ultimately individual human beings who direct society's fate.
Among the annual crop of presidential biography and history, it's been some time since a work as nuanced, instructive and fascinating as Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969, has appeared. It's the culmination of a project begun some thirty years ago by author David Eisenhower, the only grandson of the legendary Commander of the Allied Forces of World War II and two-term president, known to millions around the world simply as "Ike."
David Eisenhower judiciously begins the book not with his post-war birth in 1948 or White House boyhood starting in 1953, but as Ike's retirement begins in 1961, giving the narrative a specific focus that moves it along with a clipped pace. In covering the period of his own high school and college years, part of which he also lived, literally and figuratively, close to the former president in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he counterpoints his own maturing teenage independence of thought and action with the senior Eisenhower who is striving to keep current on rapid social changes and make sense of it all.
Anyone who loves politics, history or even the pop culture of the Sixties will be startled by the new perspective on Ike afforded by the genuinely intimate glimpses here. This is a layered work, its complexities encrypted into a flowing tale, its embarrassment of riches readily accessible on nearly each page. Going Home to Glory tells a surface story of how the elderly icon of the Fabulous Fifties navigated the Radical Sixties by using a traditional chronology where the events of the era unfold while drilling directly beneath them into the timeless values that made Ike do and say what he did in the Sixties.
It is this layer of rational common sense which offers a fresh relevance to contemporary politics.
The great seminal event which looms over the book is the Vietnam War and among Going Home to Glory's most fascinating perspectives is how the former Republican president is so closely aligned with incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, sometimes in support, sometimes questioning the wisdom of his decisions. More than anything it shows that, beyond the artificial pressures created by the media and the unrealistic expectations of an always-idealizing public, resolving crises such as war are often so complex that not even the greatest minds always get it right. As Going Home to Glory so well illustrates, it's an irony easily lost on everyone except ex-presidents.
The book's most stirring revelations may be the new documented evidence of Eisenhower's depth of commitment to civil rights, most apparent in a private letter to President Kennedy since it is unemotional and unequivocal. Among several deeds done on behalf of civil rights as President, Ike had quietly laid the necessary judicial tracks that let the Kennedy and Johnson Administration's Justice Departments to debilitate racial segregation. What follows is his refusal to abandon his principals, putting the good of his nation above partisanship. The elderly ex-president had every right to just enjoy golf in the California desert. Instead, he defies the rising power of right-wing activists who sought to turn civil rights into a state's rights issue, lobbies Republicans to vote in favor of the civil right bill initiated by the Democratic White House and implores the 1964 convention. "Republicans should now take upon themselves a moral commitment to do their utmost to see this law is implemented not merely by the powers of legally constituted enforcement agencies, but by the hearts of a determined and free people." Without seeking credit of any kind for his actions, it is the very definition of political courage and genuine patriotism. Everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Mitch McConnell to Rand Paul should be made to read this book. It is not ancient history.
With the results of the 2010 election promising nothing but party intransience, the book's passages about the former president's efforts to combat a shift to either the right-wing Goldwater or the left-wing Rockefeller as his party's new leaders is especially instructive. As David writes, "Eisenhower strongly believed in the concept of a 'dynamic center' in national politics." To Ike this was a matter not just about winning elections or popularity polls, but accomplishing genuine work. He respected the power of words, making his public remarks carefully because he took responsibility for them. Capable of deftly twisting syntax when he wanted to obfuscate the meaning of his words, he long grasped unsuccessfully for an apt label to characterize those like himself who recognized the necessity of compromise to enact change. "Middle of the road was a poor term," the former president remarked with some frustration, "but moderation should govern human affairs."
Going Home to Glory also gives a sense of Ike's recognition that all political issues are essentially efforts to resolve human struggle. In a speech the ex-president gave to his Gettysburg church congregation, he offered clarity on the separation of church and state in a way that few national leaders have done since. He opposed "bringing religion into the curriculum" of public schools but favored instruction in the non-denominational democratic principals which were rooted in religious teachings. "There is no direct reference to the Deity Himself in the constitution," he remarked, while also pointing out, "The theory of the equality of man is religious in origin."
Ike's call for such balance would make today's atheist absolutists and Christian fundamentalists allies. As David assessed Eisenhower's belief, "Only by accepting one's subordination in a transcendent order can a person work toward something truly good." Yet Ike made no reference to "Jesus" or "Christ," using instead, "Supreme Overlord." Perhaps Eisenhower's character is no where better revealed in Going Home to Glory than in David's observation of the manner in which his grandfather delivered the speech, "with a trace of wonder that he felt compelled to spell out ideas of such manifest logic and application."
Another universal issue tackled in Going Home to Glory is facing the inevitable vagaries of aging, especially dramatic here since Ike was one of those legendary figures who seemed to have been around so long that he would always be there. As his grandson observes the dying process endured by his grandfather, there comes a certain pause, taking in the magnitude of finality. With rigorous objectivity, David Eisenhower unblinkingly reviews all the privilege Ike commanded for state-of-the-art medical technology to artificially extend his life for a few months. The great General seems spooked under cold metal machines, haunted by the realization that even science could only do so much. Providing sensitive detail here, David Eisenhower refrains from passing judgment about such measures, instead respecting the reader to make up their own mind about when life ends.
Going Home to Glory is also spiked with comical, colorful anecdotes, the kind of personal, even mundane curiosities that humanize the mighty. In Eisenhower's case the revelations prove that his life with wife Mamie authentically mirrored the millions of middle-Americans they seemed to ideally represent. A telling episode is David's description of a nightly ritual with his grandparents on the back sunporch. They ate in their separate easy chairs off dinner trays in front of the television set. Ike commandeered that technological wonder of the age, the remote-control channel selector, and sniped with Mamie about what a young person like David wanted to watch on T.V. as he tried to steer clear of their testiness. Mamie sat near her solitaire table while Ike, "at an exact distance from the television screen to avoid radiation," would switch the remote back and forth between his and Mamie's favorite shows until she snapped, "Ike, make up your mind." Writes David, "Granddad would play deaf."
As a memoir it is also the coming-of-age story of not only the author but his partner in composing the book and in life, his wife Julie Nixon. She was, as most know, the daughter of Ike's Vice President Richard Nixon, and her presence in the story gives the resonance of a second storyline that merges into the main one by the end. The book opens with Ike's feeling that Nixon's defeat in the 1960 election is a public repudiation of his own presidential achievements, and ends with him living long enough to see Nixon win in 1968. Towards the conclusion, the Eisenhower-Nixon political legacy culminates like clockwork with the pre-inaugural wedding of David and Julie.
It would have been easy to let the many topics it covers swell rapidly, but Going Home to Glory is a modern publishing anomaly for its brevity and leanness without sacrificing incredible quality. The couple has been writing it carefully for some years, and the effort shows. Not only does the prose flow easily but the personal memoir aspects blend seamlessly with the political history. Important letters, memos, speech transcripts and published writings are inserted at key points enhancing rather than interrupting the narrative. Julie Nixon's skilled hand wrestled the challenge of this memoir/history's duality, much as she did with the well-wrought Pat Nixon (1986) about her mother.
In an age when news about a famous politician's child and their partner is deemed worthy when they dance on television and pose nude instead of going to college like Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol and her former boyfriend Levi Johnson have done, it's hard to believe that there were once 20-year-old newlyweds like David and Julie. They managed intense public scrutiny, campaign schedules,and criticism from their peers while simultaneously working to earn their degrees from Amherst and Smith Colleges, respectively. While both were ultimately supportive of the Eisenhower-Nixon opinion to stay in Vietnam until "peace with honor" was achieved, Going Home to Glory suggests their views were distilled from a conscientious effort to understand why their peers overwhelmingly opposed it, rather than simply adopting their elders' views with willful blindness.
Eisenhower isn't remembered for a glamorous White House or heart-soaring speeches, but after reading Going Home to Glory in light of recent presidential candidates ranging from John Edwards to John McCain, one longs for an Ike, refusing to compromise the integrity with which they all seemed so promisingly to first commit to public service.
Finally, there is an almost eerie prescience to the Dwight D. Eisenhower we hear in Going Home to Glory, his spoken and written words offering a series of warnings against dangers that seem almost more directed to a United States fifty years after he left the White House than even in his own era.
The currency of Ike's popularity is today based on his presidential farewell address which famously warned the nation about a "military-industrial complex." Going Home to Glory broadens Ike's realization that massive amounts of federal funds fed to armament manufacturers would menace America not just by creating artificial incentives for increasingly nightmarish warfare but by also insidiously destabilizing the government budget and undermining the national economy.
Implied and explicit throughout Going Home to Glory is Ike's growing concern for the democratic process if it increasingly succumbed to cults of personality. This went beyond any admittedly partisan perspective he had on telegenic and popular successor John F. Kennedy to the increasingly adversarial dramas induced by the mass-media which profits by it. "Personalities -- particularly personal animosities," he wrote in 1964, "are seemingly far more important than are issues, ideals and principals."
Twitter is doing for egotism what online shopping is doing for impatience, but then so did the Brownie camera and telephone a century ago. Society's resistance to recognizing what it has become hasn't changed either, but rousing itself to take measured responsibility can sometimes be provoked by a reminder of how dangerous excess in either direction can be. Especially haunting in Going Home to Glory, is Ike's reaction to adults resorting to the impulsive extremism of lawless violence to protest national policy and crackdown. As David Eisenhower quotes from Ike's 1967 article, "We Should Be Ashamed" he was especially shocked to see it in a nation with "more opportunities, more resources, more talent and competence... more of the tangibly good things of this life than any other nation ever had."
Perhaps for an old man who had long before determined to escape what his grandson called "the wrong sides of the track" by pulling himself up from the proverbial bootstraps, the rage which sparked much of the Sixties rioting was incomprehensible. It might also appear to be another illustration of Ike's admittedly tough-love warning to stay centered and maintain balance. When he saw the human toll of a liberated Nazi concentration camp, he was as enraged by the end result of extremism as he was horrified by the disregard for life, and made local citizens file by to comprehend what happens when society reacts too passively.. Though written in reference to America's urban violence in the Sixties, Ike's warning against excess in Going Home to Glory speaks to all extremes today: "This situation is unacceptable in a civilized society."
Photos courtesy of Simon and Schuster.
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