- - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

EISENHOWER: THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS
By Jim Newton
Doubleday, $29.95. 464 pages

The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Newton wrote “Eisenhower: The White House Years” because he thinks Dwight David Eisenhower just doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

Like many of my generation, I grew up as Ike played golf, stammered through press conferences and seemed more the nation’s grandfather than president. Eisenhower cultivated this image but was as in command at the White House as he had been as supreme allied commander of the armies that liberated Europe. Many who mistook image for reality found the 1950s boring and celebrated their deliverance when Jack and Jackie replaced Ike and Mamie in the White House.

Looking back, the ‘50s weren’t all that bad, and Ike was a far different leader than many concluded back then. Mr. Newton focuses on Ike as president, skimming over his childhood and the war years to look at his eight years as president. Ike was nominated by defeating Ohio’s Robert A. Taft, whose resurgent conservative wing of the GOP threatened the dominance of what we once called the “Eastern establishment.” It was the leaders of that establishment who recruited Ike to run.

Republicans were a true minority party in 1952, but Eisenhower was so admired that the Democrats, too, had hoped to recruit him to carry their banner. Neither party knew where he stood on the issues of the day, but everyone knew Ike was the one virtually unbeatable candidate, and that was enough.

Eisenhower ultimately declared himself a Republican, and with the help of those who admired him as well as those desperate to beat the conservatives, he vanquished Taft at a hard-fought and rancorous convention and went on to win in a landslide as millions of Republicans and Democrats donned “I Like Ike” buttons and marched to the polls to vote for him.

Republicans had a president, but party conservatives didn’t really like Ike, and he didn’t much like them, either. He saw himself as above mere partisan concerns and a man of the middle temperamentally and ideologically.

Mr. Newton doesn’t spend a lot of time on Eisenhower’s early years but traces Ike’s desire to seek a middle course to his experiences with strong-minded older and younger brothers. Avoiding extremes was something of a fetish and sometimes led him to take illogical positions. Ike hesitated to support the Supreme Court demand that the public schools be desegregated, for example, arguing that he didn’t like either the “extremists” who supported desegregation or those who opposed it.

Mr. Newton praises Eisenhower’s refusal to use the nuclear arsenal that came into being on his watch but acknowledges that while we enjoyed a nuclear monopoly, Ike often threatened to do so; in Korea, over the Taiwan straits, and in the Sinai.

Ultimately, Ike concluded that a perceived willingness to go nuclear would actually prevent a widespread war and argued that the United States should retain the big stick and the threat it implied while seeking covert means of confronting an implacable foe.

This was the genesis of MAD, or mutually assured destruction, which did, in fact, work for decades. Reliance on the nuclear deterrent also enabled the United States to cut conventional forces to save money, always a high priority in Ike’s mind. To fight at the nonnuclear level, Ike unleashed the new CIA and launched successful as well as unsuccessful efforts to destabilize or even overthrow unfriendly regimes.

Mr. Newton demonstrates that Eisenhower was far more than just a golfer. He listened to advisers, but those who worked with him knew he was the boss. Eisenhower’s programs were those of the tough-as-nails leader who had led the allies to victory, but his penchant for splitting the difference exacerbated problems within the party, and his refusal to roll back Democratic social programs set the stage for the emergence of conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who rose to prominence denouncing Ike for running a “dime store New Deal.”

Goldwater’s view was shared by many, including Ike’s brother Edgar, who told a reporter he was “the only real Republican in the family” and described Ike as “a little bit socialistic.” Edgar was wrong. Ike was a strong believer in limited government and a fiscal conservative, but he also was a gradualist and almost single-mindedly anti-ideological.

Mr. Newton admires Ike’s “moderation” and shares his disdain for the conservatives of the era, but he has produced a valuable and readable take on a president worth knowing. In retrospect, while not perfect, Ike was perhaps just what the country needed at the time. He didn’t browbeat the public or dominate every news cycle but provided steady leadership in the wake of years of drama and sacrifice.

The ‘50s, like Eisenhower himself, seem today not to have been the precursor of the hectic, dangerous decades since, but as a time when the country calmed down, prospered and managed to return to what an earlier Republican president might have called “normalcy.”

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