Yesterday, Oct. 14, 2015, marked a milestone in Americans’ ongoing effort to honor the man who secured victory in western Europe in World War II and who also led this country as its 34th president through a critical period in U.S. history.
All through the day, a number social media outlets and online news sources weighed in on the legacy of President Eisenhower on the 125th anniversary of his birth. And the day was capped off by an appearance of the Eisenhower grandchildren on C-Span to pay their own tribute.
The ascent of Dwight Eisenhower from presidential mediocrity, to near-great president, to great president has been a long time coming.
I was one of those children of the 70’s who extolled the 34th president when he, at least, in terms of his presidential legacy, was not so cool, when he was widely regarded as a bland figure who focused mostly on his golf game and delegated policy making to strong cabinet figures such as Foster Dulles.
Way back then, summoning enthusiasm for Eisenhower’s presidency was challenging for several reasons.
First, was the enormous appeal of “Camelot,” the Kennedy era, the freshness and vibrancy of which forced the Eisenhower era, widely perceived at the time as plodding and blandly gray, to the margins.
Second was the rather inauspicious start of Eisenhower’s presidential legacy, which was helped along by pro-Kennedy historian Arthur Schlesinger, who applied the first brush strokes to the portrait of a largely ineffectual and disengaged president. Despite its inaccuracy, this stereotype would persist for decades.
Finally, the late 70’s witnessed the ascent of the charismatic Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, who led the GOP’s Goldwater wing to its ultimately triumph. Reagan’s nomination and resounding electoral victory in 1980 appeared to deliver the coup de grâce to “modern Republicanism,” Ike’s term for the moderate GOP governing philosophy that he and his aide, Arthur Larson, staked out as the alternative to ultra-conservative Republicanism.
For the remainder of the 20th century, Dwight Eisenhower would be remembered at best as a decent, well-meaning chief executive who completed a passable but uninspired 8-year term and whose “modern Republicanism” was a quaint relic of the 1950’s.
Then, as so often happens, scholars began wading through presidential archives. Over the next few years, a new picture has emerged of an actively engaged chief executive whose policies and political views have not only proven durable but also prescient, pragmatic and even progressive alongside Tea Party Republicanism.
And this has coincided with a juncture in history when a growing number of Republicans are discovering that the rigid, ultra-conservative Tea Party dominance of the GOP not only portends political impasse within Republican ranks but also the relegation of the party to long-term political marginalization.
Ike himself was fully aware of how these rigid ideologues threatened the party’s future — “those “goddamned mossbacks,” was the term he applied privately to those Old Guard Republican progenitors of the Tea Party movement.
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” Eisenhower wrote in a letter to his brother, Edgar, in 1954.
As a General of the Army, the American equivalent of field marshal, Ike saw himself as carrying the mantle of George Washington. He strove to govern from the middle, much as Washington had, and also to build a broad-based party that appealed to all segments of the population, that consistently remained the party of choice of young people, and that strove to ensure that all Americans were registered and empowered to vote.
I often tell friends that the deepest insight into Ike’s character and party philosophy is gained through a reading or, better yet, a viewing, of his 1956 GOP acceptance speech.
He aspired to be an architect of the future, not only of the immediate but also of the distant future.
“Our policies are right today only as they are designed to stand the test of tomorrow,” he stressed. And when he spoke of tomorrow, Ike wasn’t looking a year down the road but rather 100 years down the road — to 2056.
He quoted Ibsen: “I hold that man is in the right who is most clearly in league with the future.”
And true to Washington’s legacy, he emphasized unity over the politics of division.
“Our Party detests the technique of pitting group against group for cheap political advantage,” he said. “Republicans view as a central principle of conduct — not just as a phrase on nickels and dimes — that old motto of ours: ‘E pluribus unum’—‘Out of many, One.’”
Dwight Eisenhower pointed to the future of the Republican Party almost 60 years ago. For the sake of its future, the GOP once again must become the party of Eisenhower. Otherwise, it can expect to be the party of Alf Landon for a long time to come.