Ike's advice: focus `on principles'

HISTORIANS may well compare the Reagan years with the Eisenhower era, the last previous 8-year presidency. Americans felt good about themselves, and each other, during Ike's regime -- just as they do now. I recall two rather lengthy interviews I had with Eisenhower at his retirement home in Gettysburg, the first in May of 1964 and the second in July of 1965. Ike was not an ``easy'' interview. He was courteous but formal. He was always the President, as long as he lived -- and always the general.

But he was never pompous. Indeed, he hated pomposity.

At one point in his officer career he had worked closely under General Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower depicted him in this way:

``We'd all be sitting around talking at one of his dinners, MacArthur saying nothing. Then he would speak up, very quietly, causing us all to have to be very silent to hear him. Then he would go on and on about what he was thinking or what he was doing or had done.

``He would not speak of himself as `I,' however. Instead, he would say, `MacArthur thinks this' or `MacArthur did that.' ''

There was a bit of scorn in Eisenhower's voice as he depicted his old colleague this way.

Then in talking of leadership, the former President said a leader should take problems -- but not himself -- seriously. He appeared to be referring to the then President, Lyndon Johnson. Ike evidently thought Johnson was much too self-engrossed.

I asked him to comment on Johnson's assertion that the Republican leadership in Congress should help him with his presidential legislative initiatives -- just as he, as Senate majority leader, had helped President Eisenhower.

``That's what he says,'' Ike sputtered, but would say no more. He obviously hadn't felt that Johnson was all that helpful.

In detailing the qualities he saw as important in a president and a presidential candidate, Eisenhower stressed the ``need for common sense.'' He said he believed that common sense finds a middle ground between those who feel there are no problems at all and those ``who seem to feel they have all the answers.''

Eisenhower said that a president should not allow himself to be labeled ideologically. He said he wanted to be measured by his specific ideas and that was the way he assessed others.

He said his focus remained -- as it had been when he was President -- ``on principles.'' Although often pictured as more moderate than Sen. Robert Taft, he was actually more conservative than Taft on some issues -- and more liberal than his ``liberal'' brother Milton Eisenhower on others.

In the 1965 interview Eisenhower indicated he had deep reservations about the way Johnson was involving the United States in Vietnam. But he would not make these criticisms public.

Instead, he said, he might talk to Johnson privately. I don't know whether he ever did.

Eisenhower in both interviews talked much of ``common sense'' -- and said that the Republican Party should become known for this approach, coming up with common-sense answers on such problems as crime in the streets, juvenile delinquency, old age. He said he felt the party had done this when a committee he had formed as President addressed itself to shaping specific positions on the great issues of the day.

Actually, Ike had some good advice for the Democrats of today.

Back in the 1960s the so-called ``moderate Republicans'' were being accused of being too close in their ideas to the Democrats. He said the Republican Party should not be afraid of the charge of ``me-too-ism.'' The important thing, he said, was that the party should seek the best ``common-sense'' answers to problems, not simply alternatives that were different.

Eisenhower advocated shorter pre-convention and post-convention campaigns. He said that with the world now able to view national conventions on television a strong effort must be made by the parties to bring decorum and seriousness to the gatherings. Today he'd find little progress has been made on these recommendations. Indeed, he would probably be aghast at the proliferation of primaries.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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