- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2000

Do the times make the president or does the president make the times? It's one of those chicken-and-egg conundrums that can only be answered with hindsight.
What we do know is that different times call for different strengths. We need to know a man's political philosophy, but as a guide for policy rather than an unequivocal value, an appreciation for direction and attitude, with an understanding of the limits of ideological absolutism.
This is History 101, but it's history with unusual clarity in an article by Michael Beschloss in the new Wilson Quarterly. Mr. Beschloss examines how President Eisenhower, a moderate conservative of moderate political ambition, took the Republican nomination away from Robert Taft, "Mr. Republican," who spent his considerable career trying to win the highest honor of his party.
He came close in 1952, but it was no time for an ideological conservative to project an isolationist foreign policy.
Ike was a war hero and the most popular man in America. He didn't want to expand the New Deal, but he didn't want to repeal it, either (and he overlooked the self-expanding nature of the welfare state). He took pains not to ruffle the feathers of Republican conservatives on domestic issues. But in foreign policy he held an uncompromising principle: It was no time for his party and the nation to be isolationist. Ike knew up close how dangerous the Soviets were, and Mr. Beschloss argues that he believed, profoundly, that the United States could not shirk the leadership of the free world.
In early 1952, Ike went to Mr. Republican and said, "I feel so strongly about defending the free world against the Soviets that I will make you a deal. If you renounce isolationism, I won't run against you for president." The rest, as they say, is history. Ike was a man of political principle, the right man at the right time in the Cold War, with his most important principle articulated in that conversation with Mr. Taft. He was not the most eloquent candidate in the race. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee, spoke beautifully crafted sentences, with all his dependent clauses and modifiers in their right places. Ike, by comparison, was a man in search of a verb. He spoke in such convoluted generalities that the reporters, in an era when newspapers prized the specific over the vague, called him "the extremely General Eisenhower." Ike, who disliked being told that Adlai Stevenson had "a way with words," suggested that if "a way with words" was what voters wanted in a president they should elect Ernest Hemingway.
Ike, like Ronald Reagan, was often described in the newspapers as a bumbler, lacking the kind of intelligence required to lead a nation. Ike himself chafed at the way his consultants and handlers wanted to package his honesty and integrity, as though they were exclusive commodities that could be wrapped and sold. "Nobody said I had a brain in my head," he confided to a friend. This is the reputation now under revision.
"If Eisenhower were president in a time requiring a leader standing in the epicenter of heroic change, like Roosevelt in the 1930s and the 1940s," writes Mr. Beschloss, "he probably would have been a disaster, because he lacked the ambitions and the skills that kind of political leadership requires." He was just right for the '50s, keeping a cool eye on the Cold War. He understood that World War III could be won only by preventing it.
He was a leader of soothing calm after a depression and war. Clare Booth Luce described him as a candidate who appealed to women as "a combination father, husband, son."
In this season of candidate debates there's hardly a candidate universally perceived as the right man for the right time. After Bill Clinton, the scandal-weary country yearns for a man of character and clarity of purpose, trustworthiness combined with competence and moral authority. In New Hampshire, voters seem to be more focused on personality than policy.
Political campaigns are tests of endurance, marathons where spectators wait to see who (or what) will reveal the flaws that finally force the undeserving to oblivion, leaving the longest-distance runner alone at the finish. A marathon is not a foolproof test, as we all know. But as Ike demonstrated a half-century ago, sometimes it works.

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