IN conformity to the 30-year cycle of nostalgia, the 1950s are back, occupying our reappraising minds, not to mention our sentimentalizing hearts. Two new studies of Dwight D. Eisenhower offer the latest in revisionism on the man who was President for eight of those 10 years -- and who, more than any other personality, stamped his image upon that decade. Indeed, American presidents, like monarchs in the old days, have come to set the style and tone of their era, especially as style and tone rather than substance have come to be more and more what an era is about. Thus, any comparison of the '50s to the present -- which is the secret purpose of nostalgia -- must begin at the White House. The parallels, at least on the surface, can be intriguing.
Here is a pastiche of criticism and praise, aimed at Eisenhower in the '50s, that might have come off of an op-ed page today, applied to Ronald Reagan:
The President is ``distrustful of fine distinctions, given to overstatement, impatient with theory . . . concerned with the effect of ideas rather than with their validity.''
The President has an inclination to turn everything he wants into a ``great crusade'' -- and then he is quite ``willing to subcontract the details'' to others.
The President's ``greatest single contribution has been bringing us all back to a sense of the true American style.'' By his ``high standing with the people,'' he has restored ``confidence and unity,'' offering ``the popular pledge that all is well.'' His form of leadership: to supply ``good feeling.''
There are, of course, contrasts between Eisenhower and Reagan as significant as these comparisons. But to an America catching its breath after World War II -- to an America still catching its breath after Vietnam and Watergate -- both men sent up a signal: ``Normalcy'' was back, and it was time, in the sociologist David Riesman's phrase, to count the country's more ``bland blessings.''
The titles of best sellers are almost as useful as the style and tone of presidents for registering the mood of a period. The GI shed his uniform to don a gray flannel suit, the uniform of the '50s, and become ``The Organization Man,'' as William Whyte's 1956 best seller put it. In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith gave a name to the America the Organization Man belonged to -- ``The Affluent Society.''
But just as Eisenhower was a more complicated man than he appeared to be at the time, so there were profound contradictions to the '50s, more visible now than then. While McCall's magazine was promoting the suburban-family-with-station-wagon ideal of the decade, ``Togetherness,'' another best seller, was pointing a sobering finger at ``The Lonely Crowd.'' Its author, Professor Riesman, set up a typology of ``inner directed'' and ``other directed'' Americans, and in so doing suggested a confusion of the heart about the serene traditional values that ``Ike'' and the placid lawns of suburbia mirrored.
The bold, garish handwriting of the '60s was already on the wall in the form of a kind of graffiti. Rock-and-roll -- equally crashing as a cymbal and a symbol -- had arrived with the well-amplified shout and wriggle of Elvis Presley. ``The Silent Generation,'' indeed!
Jack Kerouac's novel ``On the Road'' introduced the '50s to a handful of Beats who would swell to a small army of hippies in the '60s.
James Baldwin had started to post his warnings about ``The Fire Next Time,'' addressing white America from the heart of his Harlem boyhood.
The Organization Man of the '50s might have been too busy to notice, but his adolescent son and daughter had found an antihero in Holden Caulfield, the teen-age protagonist of J. D. Salinger's ``The Catcher in the Rye,'' who thought pretty much everybody and everything were ``phony.''
The '50s was the decade in which Simone de Beauvoir's ``The Second Sex,'' the first manifesto of the coming women's movement, was translated into English, while Marilyn Monroe refused to stay air-brushed in her role as ``dream girl.''
As Eisenhower left office, Michael Harrington was working on his study, ``The Other Americans,'' which would shock the country with the news that some 50 million citizens of the Affluent Society were poor.
Furthermore, the '50s must go down in history as the decade overwhelmed by two inventions -- television and the hydrogen bomb. With the first sitcoms -- ``I Love Lucy'' became the paragon -- and early game shows like ``What's My Line?,'' TV made a happy smile its logo. On the other hand, it was TV, with its relentless recording angel's eye, that nightly brought into the living room the fires, car crashes, and wars, along with the weeping faces of those who suffered them. And it was TV that almost, but not quite, domesticated the mushroom cloud.
For '50s buffs, drawing near the end of another era intent upon ``normalcy,'' the fascination lies in the question: Will President Reagan, our eminently ``popular pledge that all is well,'' take history by the horns, as Eisenhower did, and devote his powers of persuasion to slowing down the arms race? And will today's ``other'' Americans -- those who are not participating in '80s affluence -- be fully and responsibly acknowledged?
Presidents leaving office either seem to become more the politician than ever, or else they make one final try for a statesman's place in history, as Eisenhower tried to do. This last potential parallel makes us keep our eyes on the '50s -- for the sake of the Reagan years.