Once upon a time, there was a very good man, and he was a Republican...
About ten years ago, I was vacationing in a cabin, in the Rocky Mountains in Montana, and I found, among an assortment of musty Holiday and Life magazines, a few college textbooks from my parents college years, and several cartoon collections by Walt Kelly: an autobiographical narrative by Dwight Eisenhower with the title At Ease: Stories I Tell to My Friends. I never have voted for a Republican ticket, but my memories of Eisenhower are quite strong. He was the first president I was aware of, when I was in first grade, at Highland School, in Billings, Montana. All the boys in the playground wore the same outfit: blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and Keds. During the winter, I was given a thick woolen coat, with wooden barrels for buttons. We wore rubber boots, and walked to school, despite the weather. My mother probably could have given me rides, because she had a car, but my parents probably didn't want to make me feel different from everybody else. We were a bit different: my father was a doctor, and he built a high fidelity stereo, which he kept in a modern cabinet in the living room. We listened to classical music, jazz, and folk music. My parents had lived in cities like Minneapolis and New York when Dad was an intern, and we had Eames furniture, electric blankets, a furnace with a thermostat, and we golfed and learned to ski. As children, we loved President Eisenhower, and his wife, Mamie.
I found Eisenhower's reminiscences surprisingly inspiring. I am not at all a military person. When I was in college, I had some psychological problems, and my mother called the local recruiters, and somehow obtained an exemption. I'm cured now, but I probably would have died, if I had been sent to Viet Nam. All the same, when I read this book, I came to appreciate Eisenhower, a man who was molded by the military in every way. He did have a few unusual interests. At one time, believe it or not, he wanted to be a chef. When he was in the White House, he revived the use of edible flowers in salads. Always a historian, he knew of the Romans fondness for roses and nasturtiums. But the effect of his military training was truly profound. Once, on furlough in Abilene, Kansas, where he was raised, he overheard two men talking, and one of them referred to him as "that soldier boy". He was amazed and upset that anyone could know that, because he wasn't wearing a military outfit. I can imagine seeing the young Eisenhower then-- athletic, a straight posture that seems too perfect. A man that seems to improvize to find relaxation, as though it has become something unnatural, to relax. He is already marked for life by his military career. But the visual impression that one might have had of Eisenhower (or any other serviceman for that matter) does a disservice to his humanity, his sensitivity to others, his open mindedness, his optimism and kindness.
Recently there have been references to Eisenhower's politics, saying that the current Republican Party hasn't lived up to his example. I would agree. Several times, I have tried to discuss this book with friends of mine who are politically conservative. They won't go there. Either they have been advised by the pundits they follow to ignore any discussions about Eisenhower, or have been told that he was a Communist. I met a fellow who said Eisenhower had his "dark side", but he wouldn't elaborate. I think it is unfortunate that so many possible political conversations have been shaped or distorted by talking points, misinformation, and false rhetoric.
I found another copy of this book, and I reread it. I wanted to discover what the Republican Party stood for, back then. He wasn't a direct heir to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but by no means did he reject Roosevelt. He did not try to reverse the New Deal. He enthusiastically accepted it, and worked with the system that had been set in place. And he did a remarkable job in furthering the recovery of the Nation from the ravages of the Great Depression. His praises for the Social Security Administration are often quoted.
At Ease isn't a summary of Eisenhower's acts as the President of the United States. What it is, is a collection of anecdotes in which he communicates the personal values which he brought into his political life. Each story that he relates concerns philosophical points of view which were important to his success, and important to life as he sought to live it.
One of the first values he relates concerns his father. His father had invested in a hardware business. During the Depression, he extended credit to many customers. He had a partner, who, when the going became difficult, embezzled what was left, and fled. As a result of that experience, the Eisenhower family would pay only cash for everything. His father paid off his creditors, but he never had a debt for the rest of his life. His children, if they wanted to buy anything, all found jobs, and anything they earned they were allowed to spend as they wished. Eisenhower, later on in life, was a careful financial planner. He would never have allowed the massive liabilities of the national debt to accumulate. Everything he undertook was fiscally sound. He left the presidency with a balanced budget.
After he was graduated from West Point, Eisenhower was in demand at all the Army bases because of his ability to coach football teams. He had been sidelined by an injury, but his love of the game made him an ideal mentor to the men in the Army bases. He was very gregarious and accepting of everyone, at any level of athletic ability. But what advanced his career the most were his logistical capabilities. If he was asked to train 50,000 men in twelve months, he would deliver this, on time. He would sit at a desk, chain smoking cigarettes, and wheel and deal on the telephone, and he got it done, no matter how gargantuan the task. But for all his abilities as a accountant, he was deeply appreciative of the sacrifices that men make in warfare. He relates several stories of men who faced almost certain death because they had crucial duties to fulfill, and the importance of what they were able to accomplish, even though some of them lost their lives.
A related set of values came out of his addiction to playing poker. He played recreationally, although for money, for most of his military career. He says in the book that he would invite any new officer that he met to play poker. If the man made foolish bets, and took a lot of chances, he said he couldn't trust the man on the battlefield. He rarely lost, himself. He had a mind for all the odds. Some people find it disconcerting, to coldly calculate the odds that go into military science. But it's part of what needs to be done, and it saves lives, in the long run. Compare this with Ryan's budget plan. With his proposed National Budget, he just made a conservative wish list, and didn't bother to check any of the numbers. Ryan's numerous fibs about his personal life seem to fit in with that. Eisenhower didn't make stuff up. His genius was in finding what was possible in a very real world, which is full of both problems and possibilities. Compare Eisenhower's orchestration of D-Day with the fiasco our politicians made of Iraq and Afghanistan.
He relates leading an expedition within the United States, to evaluate the condition of the roads crossing the United States. He put together a convoy of army vehicles, and they made the arduous journey, often passing through areas with only dirt roads, as there was no highway system as we now know it. When he was president, he initiated the Interstate Highway system, which was modeled on Hitler's Autobahn, which he had admired when he was in Germany. This was probably one of the best things that any president has done for the financial well being of the country. Thousands of people were put to work, and the resulting infrastructure was an enormous boon to the economy. In contrast to this, the last Republican administrations have completely ignored the nation's highways. Thousands of bridges, for example, no longer will be safe, in the near future. What should have been ongoing maintenance, is now a pending financial disaster. All this, in the name of short term political goals. Tax cuts, labeled to be a kind of fiscal responsibility, is the extent of our contemporary fiscal capabilities.
What has been missing is: Eisenhower, the problem solver. The chief executive must be a politician, but this should be subservient to his executive capabilities. It is, after all, a job. Somebody has to do it. President Obama has shown some of these talents, when he is not prevented from doing so by Congress. He has instigated solutions to a lot of waste in Federal programs. With the cooperation of Congress, I think Obama could easily be like Ike was, working in the background, finding solutions, collecting data, and making decisions which are both rational and compassionate. We can't continue on with anything less than that, and keep sweeping what needs to be done under the rug. We need creative solutions, but not ones governed by fantasy. The United States has too long been a phantom, like the headless horseman in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
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