Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Now I Like Ike

When I first became aware of anything concerning national politics, it was 1952 and all right-thinking people (who certainly didn’t include the vast majority of my grade-school class) adored Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, making the first of his two ill-fated runs for the Presidency. Of course I was influenced by my parents’ views but I was already reading the daily paper—a habit that got me into trouble at the local barber shop one day when I was enjoying the sports page of the Daily Mirror and another, far older customer wanted it, probably for the racing charts. The barber snatched it from my hands, told me reading the paper was “too old for me” and advised me to stick with the comics—not that I had any problem with reading comic books. My mother bemoaned the perceived anti-intellectualism of the barber.

Like most U.S. papers in the 1950s, the Daily Mirror supported Eisenhower for President. It was owned by Hearst but just about every other paper was owned by Republicans and Ike was plenty popular. Probably the only paper I saw that supported Stevenson was the old, liberal New York Post, long before its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch. Democrats bristled when a televised Madison Square Garden rally for Ike was emceed by FDR's turncoat son, John Roosevelt.

In the mid-1960s, possibly when Eisenhower was still alive, the general attitude, especially among the better-educated, was still that Ike was a genial tool of the reactionary GOP, was probably as confused as his mixed-up syntax indicated, and that it was a great thing that Kennedy had succeeded him. The first change in this prevailing conventional wisdom came from a noted liberal columnist but always an independent thinker, Murray Kempton, then of the aforesaid Post but writing this time in the home of “new journalism,” Esquire magazine.

Kempton recalled that Eisenhower had managed to win World War II in Europe by making good use of such antagonists as Patton and Montgomery. He posited the view that Eisenhower purposely played dumb. He noted that Eisenhower had done much good, such as go along with the Interstate Highway System, and had ended the Korean War. As years have passed, Americans have yearned for Eisenhower’s days, because at the least, it was said, he didn’t do the wrong thing, as so many of his successors did, even if he didn’t do anything.

Eisenhower understood that there were times not to do anything. I read a piece last week that pointed out what I had not known—that when he visited Korea right after his election, as he had promised: “I shall go to Korea”—he made sure to tour the front lines by helicopter and see all the terrible mountainous territory that had been fought over. He rapidly drew on his experience as a general to conclude that the war should be ended, Upon his return his cabinet, led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (dull, duller, dulles) and Secretary of Defense Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson (he had been head of GM, a much stronger qualification for high office then than now), resisted his conclusion and actually wanted to take the Chinese Communists, as they then were called, on in what they may have hoped was Armageddon, or at least, a prequel to it. Despite that he moved quietly but quickly—as he always did—to end the war and he did just that. There was a ceasefire that has prevailed since then.

Would that we had a President who had the nerve (and who probably would need the prestige of military background Eisenhower had) to end the war in Iraq. The other giveaway that Eisenhower once let out that he was playing the possum was in response to his press secretary’s complaint of having nothing to say on an important topic. “Don’t worry, Jim,” he told Jim Hagerty, who had been a distinguished reporter before being press secretary (when did that last happen?), “I’ll go out and confuse them.”

We used to complain that he wouldn’t pick up and run with liberal issues any more than he did with the truly conservative ones. He never came out and endorsed Brown v. Board of Education but did act by sending troops to Little Rock to ensure that the high school was integrated. He would not directly oppose Senator McCarthy, even when McCarthy viciously attacked Ike’s mentor, General George C. Marshall, but somehow Ike had no problem with the Senate censure that effectively ended McCarthy’s career.

It turned out that Stevenson, who died rather young at 65, had a rather mixed reputation at the end. He made a great speech in the U.N. against missiles in Cuba but turned out to be about as well informed on the subject by the Kennedy Administration as Colin Powell was by his president, and thus just about as inaccurate. Some of the less attractive aspects of Stevenson's character slowly emerged: he was a true elitist and didn't truck much with having any ordinary people around him. As with Harry Truman, Eisenhower looks better and better as the years roll on.

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