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Eisenhower: The White House Years

A new biography on Eisenhower is engaging but airbrushes some of Ike's mistakes and flaws.

By Jordan Michael Smith / October 4, 2011

Eisenhower: The White House Years By Jim Newton 468 pp., $29.95, Doubleday

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There are two kinds of popular presidential biographies. The first is a book that aims for detachment from its subject, examining a president in light of new evidence or offering a fresh, critical reinterpretation. James Mann’s "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan" is a fine recent example. The second kind is a hagiography, a work that romanticizes a president and, in the process, often makes the reader feel good about America itself. David McCullough’s "Truman" is the gold standard in this stream.

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Unfortunately, this book on General Dwight Eisenhower by the veteran journalist Jim Newton falls into the second category. Though ostensibly justified by some new documents and interviews with the General’s son, John Eisenhower’s remarks about his father offer little insight or new information, and what new documents are utilized tell us little we did not already know. Instead, Eisenhower amounts to little more than a love letter to the man who occupied the Oval Office from 1953 to 1961. “Dwight Eisenhower left his nation freer, more prosperous, and more fair,” the book concludes. “Peace was not given to him; he won it.” Such saccharine words aptly summarize the sentiments expressed throughout the book.

America’s 34th president had seen his reputation much improved since he left office. At the time often seen as a bland, listless executive, he now frequently ranks among the top ten presidents in many historians’ listings. It is possible, however, to both recognize a man’s greatness and be honest his limitations.

The Eisenhower that emerges in "Eisenhower" has his flaws and mistakes airbrushed. Consider the General’s unwillingness to defend the great George Marshall from the vicious attacks by Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s. Marshall was one of Eisenhower’s mentors and instrumental in promoting him within the Army. Though many were calling on Eisenhower to repudiate McCarthy, Ike knew the Wisconsin Senator’s smears were helpful to the Republican Party. And so he remained silent as Marshall’s reputation was ripped apart by wild dogs. Newton will only say about this sordid episode that it was “imperfect.” He quotes others as admitting Eisenhower had disgraced himself, but Newton cannot bring himself to utter the words.

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