It is ironic, in its way, that President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney will meet in the first of three presidential debates tonight.
A debate, I have heard people say, is the one setting in which voters can see candidates for office as they really are — not as their campaigns wish them to be seen.
Some people would have you believe that politicians are different today than they used to be, that a system in which politicians will do or say anything to be elected is some kind of recent phenomenon.
But that is not the case.
If you read the history books, Dwight Eisenhower comes across as a wise leader, reasonable, above the pettiness of traditional politicians, a man whose experience as a warrior sharpened his principles. To an extent, all that is true, but it is not the whole story.
With the considerable benefit of historical hindsight, we know that Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 with more than 55% of the popular vote and more than 80% of the electoral vote. We also know that Eisenhower won Wisconsin with almost 61% of the popular vote.
In hindsight, it seems inevitable that Ike would win — and by a significant margin.
But, on the ground in the fall of 1952, before anyone had cast a ballot, all political observers knew was what had happened in recent years. After two decades of Democrat control of the White House, no one knew what to expect even though the Truman administration was deeply unpopular, and the state of Wisconsin, once a mostly reliable Republican state, had voted Republican only once in national elections since the stock market crashed in 1929.
State elections were a different story. In the race for the U.S. Senate in 1946, Republican Joseph McCarthy had been elected. In the course of that six–year term, McCarthy launched his search for Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the U.S. government, and he was seeking re–election in 1952.
The Eisenhower campaign apparently felt it would be a good idea to have Ike align himself with the popular McCarthy, but the problem was that Eisenhower's basic philosophy and McCarthy's differed wildly.
They were not, to put it mildly, compatible. Yet Eisenhower chose not to use the occasion to come to the defense of his friend and colleague, General George C. Marshall, who had been frequently criticized by McCarthy.
(McCarthy had often spoken of the "20 years of treason" of the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies, and he didn't hesitate to label Marshall a traitor.
(McCarthy later amended his timeline to include the early years of Eisenhower's administration.)
A defense of Marshall had been part of the initial drafts of a speech Eisenhower was to deliver in Green Bay, but he left it out of the final draft at the urging of supporters who were afraid he might lose Wisconsin if he was seen as quarreling in public with McCarthy.
A New York Times reporter discovered what had been done, and an article appeared in the Times, prompting considerable criticism of Ike for abandoning his principles — and his friend.
Most of the time, Eisenhower treated his allies and adversaries the same — respectfully — but McCarthy's approach was to intimidate his foes via accusation. Absence of proof — and there was a lot of that — did not deter him one bit.
Eisenhower went on to receive even more votes in Wisconsin than McCarthy did, and many Republicans hoped McCarthy would be muzzled by the GOP's new authority in Washington, but Eisenhower, never one of McCarthy's admirers, declined to confront him.
Supposedly, Eisenhower didn't want to "get down in the gutter with that guy" because he felt that a public rebuke by the president would be giving McCarthy precisely what he wanted.
But if he had shown the political courage to confront McCarthy, he might have spared the nation McCarthy's later excesses on the national stage.