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Tom Alderman

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Elevating Ike: An Audiobook Review

Posted: 03/29/2012 5:29 pm

It's not that the man needs elevating, certainly not to the millions of Americans in the 1950's who elected Dwight D. Eisenhower to the presidency -- twice. He could have had a third term if his own party hadn't eagerly passed the 22nd amendment limiting the job to only two terms.

On the other political hand, many Democrats at the time definitely did not like 'Ike', his family nickname. To his critics, he was an affable but mediocre president with a great smile who garbled his way through press conferences, devoured Zane Gray westerns and spent more time on the golf course than in the White House.

Two years after he left office, Eisenhower was ranked No. 22 on C-SPAN's presidential status list -- on par with the underwhelming Martin Van Buren. But by 2011 he zoomed up to No. 4 in the Vision Critical/Angus Reid poll with a whopping 61 percent approval rating. Much of this elevation has to do with the many favorable biographies over the decades. Amazon lists some 20,249 Eisenhower titles.

Add to the canon Jim Newton's totally engaging Eisenhower, The White House Years. If you're a hardcore Democrat, this audiobook could turn you around about the man.

Newton's a veteran reporter with The Los Angeles Times whose journalistic pedigree includes researching and editing the columns of The New York Times' legendary columnist, James Reston. Audiobook narrator John Mayer enhances the story with his comfortable command of the book's tone. What writer and actor deliver are illuminating tidbits and gracenotes to the Eisenhower story. He did like golf -- a lot. After he left office, the floor in the oval office had to be re-done because of the pitted holes from his much-worn spiked golf shoes.

For a five-star general who commanded all WWII forces and the largest war armada the world has ever seen on D-Day, this man did not always color within the lines. As a West Point cadet, he amassed 100 hours of penalty marching for various infractions including messy rooms, late for parades and meals, smiling in ranks, and -- my favorite -- a section 106 violation: 'inappropriate dancing!' which sounds like a euphemism for quite something else.

Today when candidates are so eagerly stamped 'liberal' or 'conservative,' President Eisenhower was a genuinely moderate Republican. It's that moderation -- always looking for a middle way -- that drove the man's achievements and his imperfections. He was chief executive during the globally insecure period known as 'The Cold War.' He got major preasure from his political right to preemptively attack all things Russian and Communist. The president refused.

One of his biggest regrets was his own appointment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Ike was against the Warren court's ground-breaking 1954 school segregation ruling, saying "Prejudices, would not succumb to compulsion." And yet, he was also the president who sent federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to uphold the very ruling he was against.

This was also the era of the first televised presidential news conferences and Ike was not its master. He bollixed words and mismatched verbs with nouns. But it didn't hurt a bit because he was "...a hero of the republic and, yet, also a man of its people. Even his famous verbal gaffs spoke to that duality," writes Newton.

The author excuses Ike's well-known affair with his military driver during the war. "It was a time of unimaginable pressure on him... under the circumstances one might excuse an affair so far from home, so immersed in the fate of his men and their cause." I wonder how well that would play in today's toxic political climate.

Ike also favored clandestine operations against hostile nations which resulted in his covert coup against Iran's ruler at the time. It was also that zeitgeist that led to his administration's ill-fated Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion.

But he also knew when NOT to interfere when he coerced our allies in Israel, the U.K. and France to stop their invasion of Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis.

Against the prevailing GOP attitude for smaller government programs and spending, Eisenhower's government created the largest public works project ever: the massive interstate highway system we have today. Citing significant government achievements over the years, President Obama cited Abraham Lincoln, who backed railroads and land-grant colleges; FDR's Depression-era public works and the G.I. Bill and Eisenhower's interstate highway system.

It was Ike's calming, appealing everyman quality that comes through this superior biography. He is the only president since Teddy Roosevelt known by an affectionate public nickname. Impressive. After 8 years as president, the man the world called Ike chose to retire using his lesser official title of general. Probably couldn't get the West Point out of him.

Audiobook: 19 hrs., 6 mins - Random House Audio
Print: 464 pages - Doubleday