Baton Rouge, LA. — On Dwight Eisenhower's last night as president in 1961, he apparently decided it might be a good idea to learn how to make his own telephone calls.
The result was comic, author Mark Updegrove reports in "Second Acts," an intriguing recent book about how presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton have lived after leaving the Oval Office.
By 1961, after serving two terms as president following a stellar career as a five-star general, Eisenhower "had spent almost all of his adult life being waited on by an attentive staff, ready to ensure that his every need was met," Mr. Updegrove tells readers.
But on his last night in residence at the White House, perhaps concluding that it was time to start adjusting to his new life as a private citizen, Eisenhower decided to give his son John a phone call without the aid of a secretary.
"The last time he had done so was almost two decades earlier, at which time he had picked up the receiver and told the operator on the other end the number he wanted," Updegrove writes. "This time he tried to do the same, but heard only a dial tone on the other end. He yelled for an operator, clicked the receiver button repeatedly, and fiddled with the rotary dial – all in vain – resulting in a tantrum."
Eventually the soon-to-be ex-president called for an aide, who gave him a lesson in how to use a rotary dial telephone. Eisenhower, Updegrove reports, marveled at the new technology and was "thereafter able to manage the task."
All of this came to mind recently when the Apple iPhone debuted to much fanfare across the country. The iPhone combines a cellphone, video iPod player, e-mail terminal, Web browser, camera, alarm clock, and organizer.
The inaugural iPhone does not, as far as anyone can tell, make coffee or walk your dog, though perhaps the next-generation iPhone will.
New York Times reviewer David Pogue hailed the iPhone as "dead simple to operate," though he conceded that making a call "can take as many as six steps: wake the phone, unlock its buttons, summon the home screen, open the phone program, view the recent calls or speed-dial list, and select a name."
Reading that protocol, I wondered how Eisenhower, who died in 1969, would fare if he were still around to try out an iPhone for himself.
In 1961, when Eisenhower furrowed his brow over a telephone he could no longer understand, he was witnessing a subtle shift of power within communications technology from the institution to the individual.
In the old order of Eisenhower's youth, a phone company operator made the connection between parties, but the user's choices were limited. The arrival of the rotary dial phone gave callers more independence, but also required them to learn new skills.
The same basic equation has governed every subsequent advance in communication, whether it be the cellphone, the Internet, or the iPhone, which is a cunning synthesis of both.
Our ability to communicate over vast distances has become more democratic and less hierarchical, with a greater range of choices in more and more hands.
But the choices have also landed a sense of dizzying complexity in millions of anxious palms.
One doubts that Eisenhower, commander of the D-Day invasion and longtime commander in chief, could have handled it.
• Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.