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David Eisenhower’s excellent and incisive memoir of his grandfather.
(Page 2 of 2)
IN 1961, SPEAKING OF “the virtue of avoiding hysteria in governmental matters” and “the crisis rhetoric of the Kennedy administration,” Eisenhower declared: “We should plan our security, defend our rights, and live with the situation in the world — no Napoleonic brooding, or impulse. Panicky policies condemn people to live in apprehension, not serenity, as is their birthright.”
Later in the decade, in 1968, against the backdrop of the panicky politics of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations and nationwide unrest, “the Gallup poll would once again name Dwight Eisenhower the man most admired by the American people” — a somewhat surprising choice for a man who “had spent the 1960s in the relative obscurity of retirement.” But he did give speeches and wrote articles focusing on “patriotism, family, common sense,” delivering messages from what Time magazine called, condescendingly, “the remote past.”
“But somehow Eisenhower’s basic optimism and his confidence in the future as America’s leading ‘soldier of democracy’ was appreciated that troubled December, and Americans were beginning to look back on the peace and prosperity of the 1950s with nostalgia.”
We may never replicate those years, but there’s no doubt they’ll continue to serve as a model for the best that America could be. And interestingly, as the distance increases and today’s national leaders lose stature, Dwight Eisenhower’s reputation continues to grow.
In 1961, a New York Times Magazine article by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. ranked presidents in order of greatness. “Eisenhower stood twenty-eighth on the list out of thirty-three.” That poll was hardly objective, conducted as it was by the father of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a devoted courtier at Kennedy’s Camelot, who would later take over his father’s presidential ranking business.
Lately, however, the Schlesinger monopoly is being broken by scholars like Alvin S. Felzenberg, who moves Eisenhower up to fifth place, one ahead of FDR. And Robert W. Merry, working on a book on presidential ratings, also believes the Schlesinger ratings reflected partisan bias among the respondents, and notes that in the 2005 Wall Street Journal poll, Eisenhower was ranked eighth.
But whatever the ratings, writes his grandson, his self-assessment stood: “He had understood his responsibility in the White House to be, in addition to making correct decisions and administering the government, one of defusing the atmosphere of crisis that had pervaded national politics since 1932. He felt strongly he had been successful.”
DURING THOSE LAST YEARS, Eisenhower brought his grandson along like the brightest and most favored of his junior officers, but was always careful not to show favoritism or the affection he obviously felt. Twelve years old when his grandfather left the White House, David Eisenhower worked at assigned chores on the Gettysburg farm, was rewarded for school grades — $5 for As, $3 for Bs and a $1 fine for Cs (during his last year, Dwight offered David $100 to cut his hair before his marriage to Julie, but refused to pay when the cut didn’t meet GI standards) — and spent much of his spare time in the company of his grandfather.
Much of this book’s interest lies in his description of those idiosyncrasies that show us his grandfather as a man — and very much the quintessential retired military man. When he gets a driver’s license, his sharp corner turns produce “the squeal of rubber against concrete [that] never ceased to surprise him.… Every bump and lurch elicited a faint, ‘Damnation.’”
He is a dedicated bridge player, but others are reluctant to join him because each game is waged like a military campaign, with no blunders allowed. The same is true of his approach to golf. He likes to read Westerns, preferably with no romance, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, dislikes casual conversation, and no matter the guests or occasion, goes to bed promptly at 10.
A man of his times, Eisenhower was not given to displays of affection. But he was also a grandfather. When he learned from Mamie that David and Julie Nixon were engaged (during a visit, David had been too nervous to break the news), he sent this letter to his grandson:
For many years, I have been struck by the virtual impossibility of men of the Nordic strain to express, in a face-to-face meeting, their affection, even when of the same family and when the ties of sentiment are strong indeed.… I sometimes envy the Latins, who do not seem to be prey to these particular inhibitions.… Because of ties of love and respect for your mind and character, I value every contact I have with you… if at any time you think I might be helpful to you, during whatever years may be left to me, it would be a great privilege to me if you would let me know.…
Even if I could do nothing, it would not be for lack of trying. This I mean very sincerely. I’m not only proud that you are my grandson, but my friend as well — to whom I give my deepest affection.
As for the engagement, he wrote: “Mamie told me of your telephonic report of the joy you and Julie felt on her acceptance of your great grandmother’s ring. I am more than delighted that the two of you feel such a deep mutual affection. You are both the kind of people who will, throughout your lives, enrich America.” And with their three children, their quiet but productive lives — with books like this — that’s exactly what they’ve done.
WRITERS TEND TO BE CYNICS, and the writers on the Nixon staff during those last long Watergate-drenched days felt they had plenty to be cynical about, with one notable exception — the Nixon family, to whom Ben Stein was our unofficial ambassador, and especially the president’s youngest daughter, Julie, whose fierce loyalty to her father and concern for the well-being of his staff exempted her from all criticism.
As Aram Bakshian recently wrote, “Julie was a good egg.” And still is.
And as this memoir demonstrates, so is her husband, David Eisenhower.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online