BOOK REVIEW: Last years of an American hero

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GOING HOME TO GLORY: A MEMOIR OF LIFE WITH DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, 1961-1969
By David Eisenhower with Julie Eisenhower
Simon & Schuster, $28, 323 pages

As a young presidential speechwriter in the Nixon White House, I soon learned that underneath a rigidly enforced surface discipline, the place teemed with conflicts and contradictions, both personal and political. There was one thing, however, that everybody seemed to agree on: Julie Nixon Eisenhower was a good egg. In both the glory days of the 1972 landslide and the long-drawn-out death agony of Watergate, Richard Nixon’s junior daughter was an inspiration to us all, a model of courage, kindness and dedication.

The same qualities were apparent in her husband, David, the only man in American history to be the grandson of one president and the son-in-law of another, a double burden of unsought celebrity status that both he and his wife bore with fortitude and unflinching good spirit.

Happily married for more than four decades now, they are a comforting reminder that - despite so many unedifying examples to the contrary - the children of the great and powerful don’t have to end up spoiled, embittered or emotionally crippled. In fact, if they are bright enough and strong enough, they may see, understand and share things that the rest of us can profit from.

This is very much the case in David Eisenhower’s latest book on his grandfather, “Going Home to Glory,” a thoughtful, clear-sighted view of the last years of a great American hero, and of the wider impact he had on both his country and his family. Additional input from Julie, mainly concerning the sometimes uneasy but genuine relationship between her father and her grandfather-in-law, add another angle of insight to the story.

And what a story it is. In recent years, with the benefit of hindsight - and the growing roster of flawed, failed successors - thoughtful historians have begun an upward reappraisal of the Eisenhower presidency.

But even if he had never made it to the White House, the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower would qualify as an American success story of epic proportions: A poor boy from Abilene, Kan., goes to West Point - largely for the free tuition - and ultimately rises, through a rare combination of soldierly skill and diplomatic finesse, to become the commander of the greatest military alliance in the history of the world. And that was only the beginning; Ike went on to serve with distinction as president of Columbia University, as postwar NATO commander and as a memoirist-historian of distinction.

Then, in 1952, he became the first Republican elected to the presidency in a quarter-century. After being re-elected by a landslide, his eight years in office, in retrospect, may have been the high-water mark of the Pax Americana, with the communist threat successfully contained abroad, and steady, stable economic and social progress at home under a leader who was both respected and liked.

Ike made it all look so easy with his affable, calm and confident public persona. It could be otherwise behind the scenes and “Going Home to Glory” does full justice to Eisenhower’s legendarily short fuse, especially with blundering subordinates or in reaction to what he considered unfair criticism. It also captures the self-contained nature of Eisenhower’s personality, a curious mixture of inner serenity and aloneness.

Perhaps this element of aloneness - of a secure, private room in the mind where all of the final weighing and deciding takes place, free from outside pressures - is one of the secrets of successful leadership. It was certainly a quality that Ike shared with another president, Ronald Reagan. But Reagan had one exception to the self-contained rule, wife Nancy. The two of them - and no one else - shared his “inner room.”

Not so with Ike. After his death, when David asked his grandmother Mamie, whom Ike truly loved, if she felt she had really known her husband of more than half a century, she paused and then replied: “I’m not sure anyone did.”

At least one person did: Eisenhower himself. In a moving letter to grandson David at college, we get a glimpse of the inner Ike that reflects equally well on the writer and the recipient:

“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 Latins, who do not seem to be prey to these particular inhibitions. … Actually the purpose of this letter is only to say that if at any time you think that I might be helpful to you, during whatever years that 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.”

In the same letter, Ike also successfully predicted the future of this book’s co-authors, then newly engaged: “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.”

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