Critics called Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower “Old Bubble Head” and his White House “the Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier” when he left office in 1961.
Mary Jean Eisenhower, in town for an Eisenhower program at the National Archives tomorrow, says however, that her “granddad” was more than just a grandfatherly golfer with a big grin. Though the late president often joked that he was an “old dodo,” he also soberly warned against our nation’s “military-industrial complex.”
The former five-star Army general had seen World War II and all its ugliness. “He was really devastated after he went through the liberated death camps and toured them right after World War II,” Miss Eisenhower says by phone from her office at People to People International in Kansas City. “He just could not believe he knew obviously that they were fighting against something horrible, but until he actually saw it … He took the press with him, and he took my father with him, and he made everybody do all of these photographs because he said, ‘Some day, they’re going to say, “This never happened,” and we’ve got to bear witness.’ “
“He was really haunted by those memories.”
The president’s granddaughter hopes the nationwide, two-year “Taking the Center to the City” campaign raises public awareness about a more complex Eisenhower.
Congress has commissioned an Eisenhower statue for the U.S. Capitol. The Old Executive Office Building, which is connected to the White House, has been renamed for Mr. Eisenhower. The Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas recently named him its “Kansan of the Century.” But family and followers complain that he remains an enigma.
His grandson David Eisenhower, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, sees a link between presidents Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, particularly in terms of public perception. Mr. Reagan, he notes, also was known for his affability and public popularity.
“It takes energy to study history,” Mr. Eisenhower says. “Sometimes you hear that he (Mr. Eisenhower) was a nice guy or nothing much happened in the ‘50s, but that’s the first take. An affable, nice, popular father figure maybe means ‘not worth your time’ to a superficial historian.
“[But he was]… a man of extraordinary resolution and strength who enjoyed the total confidence of the people at a bewildering point in history.”
Tomorrow, the National Archives will offer the program “Spies and Disloyalty: The Internal Security Dilemma During the Eisenhower Presidency.”
The event is sponsored by the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kan., the Eisenhower Foundation which creates ongoing exhibits at the center’s museum and the Herbert Brownell Memorial Lecture Series, named for Mr. Eisenhower’s attorney general. William P. Rogers, who succeeded Mr. Brownell, will join three historians for the program.
“The median age of people who knew Ike and the 1950s, we’re losing them,” says Eisenhower Foundation Director Stuart Etherington. “That’s a fact of life.”
The archives panel discussion will be followed by a public reception at the Hart Senate Office Building, which will include members of the Eisenhower family and the Kansas congressional delegation. A short film about the center will be shown. The Abilene site includes a presidential library and museum and Mr. Eisenhower’s boyhood home and grave site.
“It’s located right in the center of the state,” David Eisenhower says, laughing. “It’s so centrally located it’s hard to reach. You have to cross a lot of prairie, or if you’re coming from the West Coast, you cross a lot of desert.
“It’s a nice place for people to repair to. It’s the greatest place to work in the world. I’ve spent a month at a time there. There are no distractions. That must be how the Franciscan monks were able to preserve their manuscripts, in complete quiet.”
The center plans to remodel the museum, which opened in 1962. Mr. Etherington says plans are to modernize the gallery with interactive, computerized displays and focus on 1950s issues such as technology advances, space exploration and changing lifestyles.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan People to People International, founded by Mr. Eisenhower in 1956, sends people to foreign countries to promote understanding through direct contact. Miss Eisenhower says her grandfather saw it as “a healing tool.”
“He felt if the mysteries and bigotry were removed from the way that we looked at people different from ourselves, it would prevent something like [the Holocaust] from happening again,” she says.
Without a Watergate, Iran-Contra or Lewinsky scandal, Mr. Eisenhower’s tenure is being remembered as the last two-term administration relatively free of scandal. But Dan Holt, director of the Eisenhower Library, says declassified documents of those years also demonstrate a popular president whose foreign policy faced tense times.
“We’re realizing how difficult it was then to keep the Cold War cold,” he says from his Abilene office. “We’re finally beginning to appreciate the ‘brinksmanship,’ as that term was applied, though it sounded a little risky.
“Even his political adversaries liked him. He was relatively nonpartisan, though it’s a misnomer to say he was not a politician.”
Mr. Holt says if Mr. Eisenhower were still alive, his basic 19th-century values probably would make him cringe at the level of personal vindictiveness in politics today, but he says the man also was adaptable. That, says Miss Eisenhower, goes back to the fact that Ike was not easy to label.
“He was a multifaceted person,” she says. “He was not considered a conservative, he was considered a moderate Republican. In fact, he debated which party to go with.”
The president once described himself as “an extremely liberal conservative.” Miss Eisenhower laughs about asking her grandfather, who was raised as a Democrat, why he went Republican.
“He got this ‘I’m-gonna-explain-something-to-you’ look on his face,” says Miss Eisenhower, who was 14 when her grandfather died. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, I’m in for it, it’s going to be a while.’ He started explaining about the two-party system and that the Democrats had been in power long enough.
“And I turned around and said, ‘Granddad, what if you’d lost?’”
She laughs again.
“He completely changed the subject,” she says. “It occurred to me at that time that he never entertained the idea that he would lose.
“That must be how he pulled it off and stayed so happy in the meantime. You just don’t entertain the negative thoughts.”
WHAT: “Spies and Disloyalty: The Internal Security Dilemma During the Eisenhower Presidency”
WHEN: Tomorrow, 1:30 p.m. (A public reception for the Eisenhower Center takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. in Room 902 at the Hart Senate Office Building
WHERE: National Archives, fifth-floor theater, Pennsylvania Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW