Wishing Our Candidates Would Be Like Ike
With a little over a month until the presidential election, I’ve suggested to my hyperventilating Republican and Democratic friends that they be extra nice to me because I am a 6 percent voter. In simple political terms, they need me more than I need them.
You see, if current polls mean anything, I belong to the 6 percent of independent voters who have yet to make up their mind one way or another about a presidential election where each side claims a solid 47 percent of the electorate. Each seems to have its own electronic megaphone in the form of a cable channel that confirms their harshest suspicions to the other side.
One side fervently believes President Barack Obama is a secretly practicing Muslim socialist who faked his birth certificate and aims to destroy America by undermining personal freedoms and making us all slaves to the state, among other heresies refusing to accept what an exceptional place this country truly is.
The other side reflexively blasts Mitt Romney for being a successful businessman and governor and family man, succeeding masterfully at one thing America truly is exceptional at doing — making money for his investors and having the courage to change his mind on certain issues.
Both campaigns have spent record amounts of capital viciously attacking and distorting each other's records, parsing every statement and fomenting class warfare. While ignoring the largest concerns on most voters’ minds — i.e. how do we get the economy moving again, and what about a war no politician has the brass to speak honestly about — our two-party choices, unwilling to risk offending their 47-percent, yammer on about the most trivial things.
Polls, meanwhile, show a large majority of voting Americans are increasingly fed up with the partisan nature of American politics, the pious posturing of a divided Congress that consistently and historically polls around 12 percent approval rating (the 112th Congress, which just adjourned to run home and campaign, now ranks among the least productive in American history, their towering accomplishments being the unanimous passage of a Congressional Gold Medal for Arnold Palmer and a special coin recognizing Mark Twain) while America is held hostage to love of Party over country.
A couple weeks back, while sitting beneath Columbia’s beautiful rotunda and watching Palmer receive his gold medal, I glanced over at a statue of a soldier president named Dwight David Eisenhower and couldn’t help but think — not for the first time — that what America really needs is another Ike.
In his splendid new book “Ike’s Bluff,” historian Evan Thomas lays out beautifully how Dwight David Eisenhower not only adroitly steered this country through some of its most perilous days of the Cold War, but established a standard of decency and effective leadership that not only brought America unprecedented peace and prosperity but should be holy writ for anyone aspiring to our highest office — or for that matter, even Congress.
Owing to his modest and soldierly nature and love of playing bridge and golf, America’s greatest War Hero — the supreme Allied commander who liberated Europe — has often been overlooked or simply ignored by contemporary pundits who would rather concentrate on the tawdry glamor of a Kennedy or the pathology of a Richard Nixon.
In fact, as Thomas notes, Ike’s presidency was one of the most productive and influential in Oval Office history, beginning with his ending of a Korean conflict that festered like a wound on the American psyche much the way Afghanistan — officially the longest undeclared war in our history — has cost our country untold blood and treasure.
Harry Truman talked of desegregating the armed services but Ike actually did it. He also waged a successful war behind the scenes against “Tail-gunner” Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare mania — closing a disgraceful chapter in — and sent the 101st Airborne into Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine black students entering Little Rock’s Central High School and uphold the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Truman unleashed the horrors of the Atomic Bomb to end a war, but his successor’s two over-arching fears, as Thomas brilliant sketches out — the clear vision of a man who had seen the worst impact of war firsthand — was a real and present danger of an atomic conflict with the bellicose Soviets and the effects a sustained armed race would have on the liberties and economic prospects of the world at large, especially Americans.
Upon learning of Joseph Stalin’s fatal stroke in March of 1953, Ike confided to his close aide, Emmet Hughes, that he saw an opportunity to make peace and possibly even reverse the arms race, possibly even put the atomic genie back in the bottle before all of civilization paid the heaviest price. While preparing for an April speech to newspaper editors, according to Hughes, his boss impatiently wheeled around and declared: “Here’s what I would like to say....
“The [military] jet plane that roars over your head costs three quarters of a million dollars. That is more money than a man earning ten thousand dollars every year is going to make in his lifetime. What world can afford this sort of thing for long?...We are in an armaments race: everyone is wearing himself out to build up his defenses. Where is it going to lead us? At worst, to atomic warfare, and we can state pretty damn plainly what that means. But at the least, it means that every people, every nation on earth is being deprived of the fruits of their own toil...”
“Now here’s the other choice, the other road to take — the road to disarmament. What does that mean? It means for everybody in the world: butter, bread, clothes, hospitals, schools — good and necessary things for a decent living.”
Blueprint for World
Largely unaware of Ike’s obsession to save the world from a perpetual arms-race and inevitable self-destruction, America enjoyed the peace dividend provided by the end of the Korean war, a period of blossoming consumer culture and sustained prosperity that improved the daily lives of most ordinary Americans. Polls showed that in Ike they trusted, by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
In the speech he wound up giving to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, officially titled “The Chance for Peace” — delivered in the grip of a powerful stomach distress he brought back from a golf trip to his beloved Augusta National, no less — he elaborated: “The cost of one heavy modern bomber is this: a modern brick school in 30 cities ... We pay for a single fighter plane with a half a million bushels of wheat. We pay for a new destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than eight thousand people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
It would be widely hailed as the finest speech of his career, the blueprint for a saner and more productive world, but it would come to naught — undermined by a confused Soviet leadership and congressional hawks who — heavily subsidized by military contractors — pushed back against Ike’s determination to reign in runaway military spending under Truman.
While the nation bought TV sets and flocked to golf courses in record numbers and debuted the rise of Elvis Presley and “Rock n Roll,” a seeming genial Eisenhower used his formidable military knowledge and fabled card-playing skills to keep the peace by manipulating Washington’s power elite and bluff the masters in Moscow and Bejing who were building up their militaries at unprecedented rate.
“More than anything,” writes Evan Thomas, “Americans wanted to be protected, to see their families safe. If Ike seemed conventional, even a little boring, he also came across as calm, steady, and strong. To the American people, who knew nothing of his internal turmoil, he was steady when it mattered.”
Put America on Top
It mattered a great deal when a proposed peace summit with the Russians fell apart after the downing of an American spyplane, opening a new and even more dangerous chapter in Cold Warfare brinksmanship. In his second term, Ike gambled on the concept of enhanced missile deterrence to keep the Soviets at bay and drew a red line against Red China’s ambition on Taiwan. He cut conventional military spending and used American leverage with our leading allies to end the “Suez Crisis” that threatened to engulf the Middle East in a wider war involving Israel.
In the process, though most Americans never knew anything about it, the old Second World Warrior who dreamed of a kinder, gentler, disarmed and far more peaceful and productive world, suffered a heart attack and a stroke during his most difficult days in office. In the end, battling loneliness and advancing poor health, his biggest policy gambles paid off and he handed over the terrible responsibility of the presidency — not to mention a nation that was considerably better off than most historians recognized for decades — to a smiling, vigorous John F. Kennedy, in 1961.
As “Ike’s Bluff” reveals, Eisenhower’s great ability to properly read his adversaries and make unexpected allies of them, is one of the great under-told stories of our time and the reason you should put Evan Thomas’ fabulous book on your bedside reading table this noisy and disappointing political season.
Ike battled the extremists of both parties and abroad, and America came out on top.
That’s my hope for whichever of the 47 percent this 6-percent man finally decides is the closest thing we’re likely to get these days to a Dwight David Eisenhower.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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