A Dozen Lessons Donald Trump Could Learn From Dwight Eisenhower

Eisenhower was the last non-politician to be elected president.
01/16/2017 02:01 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2017
Alfred Eisenstaedt via Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump has reportedly been studying the inaugural addresses of presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as he prepares his own speech for January 20, 2017. This is reasonable. Both Kennedy and Reagan delivered stirring speeches that outlined their world views, framed their agendas, and readied their contemporaries for the stern challenges ahead. The Kennedy and Reagan Inaugural speeches are still read today for perspective and inspiration.

However, if Trump wants to steel himself for the challenges of leading the United States it would also make sense for him to review the record and especially the governing style of Dwight D. Eisenhower, our nation’s 34th president. Eisenhower served in the White House from 1953 to 1961 following a stellar military career that included leading the historic D-Day invasion in 1944 that turned the tide of World War II.

Eisenhower was the last non-politician to be elected president. He entered the White House after 20 years of Democratic administrations led by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and navigated the nation through a difficult phase of the Cold War.

To be sure, Eisenhower’s personal and professional background could not be more different than Trump’s and the political world he dominated is of a different century―and seemingly from a different universe—than today’s. Nonetheless, there are lessons from Ike that Trump would be wise to consider. They would require him to adopt a very different approach to politics, government, management and human relationships. These changes would be difficult for Trump, but they would give him a far better chance to be a successful president.

Here are a dozen lessons that Trump could learn from Eisenhower.

1. Respect the dignity of the presidency.

Eisenhower, despite his stodgy and benign public image, was an intense, restless, and forceful man with a fierce temper. But Ike was very careful to make sure his explosions occurred only in private. He believed the president needed to publicly comport himself with optimism, confidence and class. The president, he recognized, was the face and voice of America. People were watching and paying attention.

In a letter to TIME’s Publisher, Henry Luce, Ike emphasized the importance of “maintaining a respectable image of American life before the world,” adding that “among the qualities that the American government must exhibit is dignity.” The president as the nation’s symbol and spokesman “must strive to display” this dignity at all times.

Eisenhower, a global superstar, was genuinely humbled by the office he assumed. In a memoir, he describes entering the Oval Office for the first time as president. “There had been dramatic events in my life before but none surpassed, emotionally, crossing the threshold to an office of such awesome responsibility. Remembering my beginnings I had to smile. If my chances of walking into this room had been calculated when I was born in Denison, Texas in 1890, they would have been approximately zero. And yet the homely old saw had proved to be true: in the United States, any boy could grow up to be President.”

2. Understand the president’s dual roles as chief of state and head of government.

While Eisenhower identified himself as a Republican and was proud to be the leader of a unified GOP government in 1953, he was also keenly aware that he represented all Americans.

He understood the presidency combined two different responsibilities, chief of government and head of state. Herbert Brownell, Eisenhower’s Attorney General, recalled Ike’s belief that as chief of state he was the symbol of national unity and aspiration while as head of government he had to plunge into the roiling and murky waters of practical politics.

Eisenhower was a tough boss who demanded careful work from his cabinet and staff. While sparing with praise, he appreciated excellence and engendered a sense of competence and a spirit of common endeavor. He did not refer to “my” administration or “my” cabinet, but usually spoke of “the” administration and “the” cabinet.

3. Challenge people’s views, but never question their motives.

Eisenhower enjoyed spirited policy debates, but he was determined to keep them focused on issues. He encouraged his staff to argue and challenge each other―and him―but never to question the motives of others. He told his secretary, Ann Whitman, that it was essential to “always leave a line of retreat open to your antagonist and the most important one you can leave is never to challenge his motives.” He believed that people can handle disagreements easily, but never forgive having their good faith questioned.

This basic civility was powerful and contagious; Ike’s staff venerated him. “He was by all measures that I can apply to people a splendid and beloved man,” recalled Maurice Stans, Eisenhower’s budget director. “His sole aim was to do the right thing for the country; he was uniquely forthright and direct, never devious; his mind was sharp and his questions were precise, sometimes cutting.”

4. Management and planning are critical to governing.

While Ike was derided by many academics and journalists for trying to recreate a military staff system in the White House, historians have come to respect his managerial acumen. Political scientist Fred Greenstein credits him with significant organizational innovations in the modern Presidency. He created such offices as chief of staff, legislative liaison, cabinet and White House staff secretaries, scientific adviser, and national security adviser. He took great pride in the structure and rigor of his National Security Council and chaired virtually all of all its meetings during his two terms.

Eisenhower made his share of mistakes, but rarely because of impulsive actions. “Organization cannot make a genius out of an incompetent; even less can it, of itself, make the decisions which are required to trigger necessary action,” Ike wrote. “On the other hand, disorganization can scarcely fail to result in inefficiency and can easily lead to disaster.”

5. Understand which issues can be delegated and which require presidential attention.

Eisenhower did not want peripheral issues brought to his desk. “Never bring me a sealed envelope,” he told his staff. But he knew what he needed to know. He set aside time during Christmas vacations at Augusta National Golf Club to review the White House’s coming budget submission, even working with his budget director on New Year’s Day to go over line items.

He was also willing to do a deep dive on security issues. He once spent four hours in a briefing on a ballistic missile system, convinced that he needed to understand its nuances. He hired science advisers to brief him on cutting edge developments. But he bristled when his Defense Secretary, Charles Wilson, scheduled meetings with him to discuss second tier issues, telling Wilson he should decide those matters on his own.

6. Think before speaking―and be very careful before proposing new policies.

When Eisenhower came to office in January of 1953, congressional Republicans were ready to move aggressively on multiple fronts, having spent two decades in the political wilderness. Ike understood the power of momentum and the temptation of quick action. However, he also had a conservative’s appreciation for caution and prudence.

He wrote this diary entry less than two weeks after entering the Oval Office: “I feel it is a mistake for a new Administration to be talking so soon after the Inauguration; basic principle, expounded in an inaugural talk is one thing―but to begin talking concretely about a great array of specific problems is quite another. Time for study, exploration and analysis is necessary. But―the Republicans have been so long out of power they want and probably need―a pronouncement from their President as a starting point. This I shall try to give. I hope―and pray―that it does not contain blunders that we will later regret.”

Ike resisted the entreaties of some Republicans to dismantle the New Deal, saying his mission was to slow the growth of government and consolidate past achievements. He was an advocate of incremental progress and bipartisan negotiations. “You can’t drastically reform everything at once...If you strive to gain everything at once, without compromise, you end up with nothing,” he said.

7. Approach problems like a fair-minded judge.

The quintessential executive, Eisenhower also had the temperament and inclination of a judge. He aggressively sought out and carefully examined evidence and was willing to immerse himself in complexity and ambiguity. He preferred issues to be presented to him in carefully prepared oral briefings and then have experts debate matters vigorously in front of him. While often depicted as plodding and unimaginative, his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, said he had a “truly agile” mind and Richard Nixon, his vice president for eight years, said Ike could be “bold, imaginative and uninhibited” as he unpacked issues.

“Clearly, there are different ways to try to be a leader,” Ike said. “In my view, a fair, decent, and reasonable dealing with men, a reasonable recognition that views may diverge, a constant seeking for a high and strong ground on which to work together is the best way to lead our country in the difficult times ahead of us.”

8. People remember how they are treated, especially by the president.

Everyone likes to be dealt with respectfully and people especially remember their encounters with a President. Ike never forgot this.

In remarks at the unveiling of a portrait of Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, Ike lavished praise on the man being honored. After the ceremony, he realized he had not offered a similar tribute to the House Republican leader, Charlie Halleck, who was also in attendance. The president immediately sent Halleck a note of apology in which he said “how appreciative I am of your friendship and how much I admire your capabilities as our leader in the House.”

9. Admit mistakes and take personal responsibility for matters large and small.

In the spring of 1960, the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane and captured the pilot, Gary Powers. American officials initially put out false cover stores which the Soviets discredited when they displayed Powers and the remnants of his plane. After the initial debacle, Eisenhower stepped forward and took personal responsibility for the decision to have the U-2 fly into Soviet airspace. He rejected a recommendation that he blame the incident on the CIA. He would not do this because it would signal he was not in charge of his own government―and especially because it was not true. “He had this thing about honesty,” said Douglas Dillon, Ike’s undersecretary of state.

In a less consequential but still revealing matter, Eisenhower was chagrined to realize that he had failed to properly acknowledge a Republican congressional candidate, David Blum, during a Baltimore campaign event. “I’m not exactly sure who Mr. Blum is,” Ike quipped to the crowd when he saw the candidate’s campaign sign. Newspaper accounts reported this comment to the embarrassment of both men. Ike quickly sent an apology to Blum that may not have helped him with voters but probably earned a prized place in the candidate’s scrapbook. The president blamed himself for being too casual on the stump and sent a small donation to Blum’s campaign to underscore his support.

10. Cultivate respectful, tactful, and honest relationships with global leaders.

Given his remarkable military career and his World War II heroics, Eisenhower knew leaders from around the world. He was gracious to all and skillful in his dealings with them, even those who could be difficult such as Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nikita Khrushchev, and Konrad Adenauer. He took great care to never publicly embarrass them and provided thoughtful replies to their concerns. He strove to find areas of agreement and expressed differences with tact and clarity.

Receiving a disputatious letter from President De Gaulle in the summer of 1960 on foreign policy, Ike acknowledged it immediately. But he said he wanted additional time to study the letter before giving a detailed response. The letter he eventually sent was masterful. It was conciliatory and respectful to De Gaulle, but also forceful. Eisenhower yielded no ground and pointed out several inconsistencies in the French leader’s reasoning. “I must confess, my dear General, that I cannot quite understand the basic philosophy of France today,” he said in a restrained but pointed summary. However, Ike ended the letter in a positive way, vowing to continue the “close friendship I have for you and France.”

11. Bluster is not the same as toughness.

Ike was a commanding presence and dominated every room he entered. “Upon first encounter, the man instantly conveyed one quality―strength,” said an aide, Emmet John Hughes. But his strength was modulated and restrained. Ike was not a bully. Eisenhower said the United States, as the global leader, should “display a spirit of firmness without truculence, conciliation without appeasement, confidence without arrogance.” This was also his personal style.

Bryce Harlow, a long-time Ike aide, said the president was “the most completely rounded American I shall ever know...He was a marvelous person. No hang ups. He was at peace deep down inside, deep in the psyche. He never felt internally insecure.” Eisenhower was tough and determined, but not harsh or ruthless. In a fitting tribute, Gabriel Hauge, one of Eisenhower’s aides, presented the president with a small black paperweight with a Latin inscription that said “Gently in manner, strongly in deed.”

12. Problem solving is hard work, but essential.

Eisenhower said he approached practical problems with the same relish that others brought to crossword puzzles. He liked to break an issue down to its essence, determine the long-term interests of the nation, and then consider the immediate options before him.

Shortly after entering office, Eisenhower decided that he needed to fundamentally reexamine America’s foreign policy strategy. He created a secret and rigorous process―called Project Solarium―in which several strategic options were researched, refined, and presented to him and his foreign policy team in a full day of briefings.

Eisenhower listened carefully, asked probing questions, and gave a masterful summary. George Kennan, the renowned American diplomat, attended the session and said Eisenhower showed his “intellectual ascendancy” over the entire group. “He spoke, I must say, with a mastery of the subject matter and a thoughtfulness and penetration that I found remarkable,” Kennan recalled. Ike oversaw the drafting of a revised security strategy that guided the nation for several decades and helped it win the Cold War.

Because of these qualities and others, Eisenhower was revered by the American public. During his presidency, Ike’s approval rating averaged 64% and it dipped below 50% only once. He was often scorned by journalists and academics as a passive, absentee president who preferred golf and bridge to active governance and deeper interests. Ike bristled at these criticisms in private, but did not engage in a public debate with his critics.

Eisenhower told his associates that he would wait for history’s verdict of his presidency. In his final week in office, he received a supportive letter from a British friend, Hastings Lionel Ismay, and returned a gracious reply. “You are characteristically understanding of the emotions that crowd my mind these days. I appreciate beyond words your comments concerning what I have tried earnestly to do. The verdict on my efforts will of course be left to history, and I don’t have to worry about it now―but it is wonderful to know of your approval.”

The initial verdict of Ike was harsh. In 1962, a poll of 75 scholars ranked all the presidents from Washington to Eisenhower in order of “greatness” and Ike placed twenty-first, tied with Chester Arthur. Though hurt and angered by the survey, Ike was confident that history would vindicate him. It has. Scholarly rankings now put Eisenhower in the top tier of presidents. In a survey by the American Political Science Association several years ago, Ike was rated seventh. Historian Jean Smith believes that Ike ranks only behind FDR of all 20th century presidents.

As Donald Trump prepares to enter the Oval Office, it’s unlikely that he will change fundamentally. However, both Trump and the country would be well served if he reflects on Eisenhower’s leadership style and draws insights and guidance from Ike.

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