The death of Dwight Eisenhower 50 years ago, on March 28, 1969, is generating commemorations and reassessments of his myriad critical world-saving military and presidential accomplishments. But another, equally important legacy of Ike has been unknown to history: His mentorship of Ronald Reagan in the mid and late 1960s.
During this time, Mr. Reagan — the former head of the Screen Actors Guild — sees his acting career spiral downhill. He decides he may enter politics. At the 1964 Republican convention, Mr. Reagan intently studies former President Eisenhower deliver his speech. As the general election approaches and polls indicate a crushing defeat, Barry Goldwater begs Mr. Reagan for help. Mr. Reagan’s first nationally-televised speech, “A Time for Choosing,” is watched by millions.
Also watching, enthralled to see a new Republican rising star, is Mr. Eisenhower, who immediately calls colleagues to praise Mr. Reagan. After the GOP suffers massive losses, conservative Reagan reaches a momentous decision: He will enter the Republican race for the governorship of California. But novice Reagan needs a mentor, so he seeks out Mr. Eisenhower.
In July 1965, Mr. Eisenhower begins to counsel Mr. Reagan by writing a thoughtful letter of political advice and twice urges Mr. Reagan to seek “common sense” solutions to problems. Mr. Reagan follows Ike’s advice to the letter. Mr. Eisenhower continues his political mentorship of Mr. Reagan via exchanges of numerous letters and many phone conversations. When he wins the Republican primary, Mr. Reagan immediately flies east to meet his mentor.
This is the first of four intense, multi-hour personal meetings the two men will have. Ike advises Mr. Reagan on polling data, speech technique, to emphasize Northern California and small cities, and to seek out disaffected Democrats and Independents. Twice when Mr. Reagan is falsely charged with being anti-Semitic, Ike mentors Mr. Reagan on how to fight back. Mr. Reagan makes Mr. Eisenhower’s term “common sense,” his campaign theme, and later tells the press that Ike was its inspiration..
When Mr. Reagan wins the governorship of California by almost one million votes, Mr. Eisenhower immediately looks ahead to the presidential year 1968. Ike offers to host a luncheon of all prospective 1968 Republican presidential nominees. And right in the middle of Ike’s list is the man he just had mentored from novice politician into a potential president of the United States: Ronald Reagan.
From November 1966 up to the August 1968 GOP convention, Mr. Reagan launches his first presidential campaign. Mr. Eisenhower switches his tutelage to world affairs, and he mentors Mr. Reagan on how to win the Vietnam War, how to negotiate with communists, and how to defeat communism by a strong American economy and military. Mr. Eisenhower tells the press that Mr. Reagan is presidential timbre, and that if the 1968 convention nominates Reagan, that he will endorse Mr. Reagan enthusiastically.
Candidate Reagan continuously cites Eisenhower’s advice on Vietnam and berates the loss of America’s huge lead in military technology during the Eisenhower years and how it is being squandered by the Kennedy-Johnson administration. In a January 1968 magazine interview, Mr. Eisenhower almost endorses Mr. Reagan for president. Mr. Reagan’s first presidential campaign ends in defeat, and through Mr. Eisenhower’s death — fifty years ago today, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Eisenhower have no know further interactions.
Fast forward 15 years, and Mr. Eisenhower’s continued influences upon President Reagan are myriad and profound. One of President Reagan’s favorite quotes is from Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, “the vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment.” Indeed in all official presidential speeches and press conferences over his eight years, President Reagan quotes his mentor Mr. Eisenhower the most.
In December 1983, Mr. Reagan confirms that his entire goal of nuclear arms reductions is to fulfill Mr. Eisenhower’s unfulfilled 1953 “Atoms for Peace” proposal at the U.N.
In June 1984, when Mr. Reagan becomes the first president to visit Normandy for the 40th D-Day commemorations, he praises Ike’s D-Day troops. And then when speaking from Marine One to the off-shore crew of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower, Mr. Reagan grabs the microphone and calls down to the crew, “I like Ike. I Love Ike!”
During Mr. Reagan’s 1989 Farewell Address, he harkens back to the 1960s and why he had entered politics. He reflects that he had wanted to restore the pride in America that had existed during the Eisenhower years, and Mr. Reagan proceeds to thank Ike’s World War II troops and to use his favorite term from Mr. Eisenhower — “common sense” — one last time.
Mr. Reagan kept a photograph of himself with Mr. Eisenhower on every official desk he had, and it was the only non-family photo on the Reagans’ piano. He kept a bust of Mr. Eisenhower in the small Oval Office study and a photo of Ike behind the Oval Office desk. Finally, the official Reagan Cabinet photo showed Mr. Reagan and his team underneath the formal portrait of Gen. Eisenhower, who was looking down with pride upon his protege, Ronald Reagan.
• Gene Kopelson is the author of “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman” (Figueroa Press, 2016).