Americans liked Ike, whom they repeatedly voted their most admired fellow citizen, right up until the day he died in 1969, more than nine years after vacating the White House. He’d beaten Hitler and during his two terms in office he had been a commonsensical, consensus president. He ended the Korean War and declined in 1954 to commit American troops to Vietnam, where the French were on the ropes. He refused to launch an assault on Roosevelt’s New Deal, as many Republicans wanted him to do. He simply ignored Joseph McCarthy, but that may have been comment enough from someone as well thought of as Ike.
He could be tough as nails on Israel, more so than any of his successors. And he had that wonderful grandfatherly grin.
But did Americans really know Dwight David Eisenhower? The answer is no, based on Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower 1961-1969 by David Eisenhower, his grandson, with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the author’s wife and the daughter of Richard M. Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s vice president from 1953-1961.
Eisenhower was a mystery in many ways to his own family. Although almost always surrounded in retirement by a coterie of relatives, friends, political supporters, or army and golfing buddies, he could be remote, brusque, intimidating and short- tempered – traits no doubt honed during his military career. The author writes that he once asked Mamie Eisenhower why her husband was so restless and whether his omnipresent entourage “revealed a weakness, perhaps a fear of being alone, or a nonexistent inner life.” Not satisfied with his grandmother’s answer, he followed up by asking her if she had really known her husband of 45 years. “I’m not sure anyone did,” she replied. The author writes later in the book, “To me, Dwight Eisenhower had always been imposing and at times unapproachable, and I had never understood why people thought of him as so genial.”
Delectable insights like this, personal and political, are scattered throughout the book, but the reader has to trek across some dead patches to find them, such as a chapter highlighted by Eisenhower’s recipe for barbecue sauce or a stretch about young Republicans in love (i.e. David and Julie), which could have used way more spice. It was the 1960s, for Pete’s sake. The author, whose other book chronicled his grandfather’s World War II service, is capable of sentences like this one: “Granddad’s stream of consciousness covered whatever was on his mind.”
Nonetheless, despite an incestuous aura about the book – it tiptoes around the sometimes touchy relationship between Nixon and Eisenhower, for example – it does wade into other troubled waters. Eisenhower, whose politics were so amorphous that he was approached by President Harry Truman in 1947 to head the 1948 Democratic ticket (the incumbent was willing to assume the role of second banana), was not a Republican in the contemporary sense of the word. He may have had serious reservations (detailed in the book) about his dashing young successor, John F. Kennedy, but the two conferred fairly often on matters great and small. And the elder statesman gave advice that he hoped would help Kennedy succeed for the good of the nation. It was all very ecumenical by today’s standards.
But rank partisanship was just around the corner in the person of Barry Goldwater, who scoffed at Eisenhower’s tenure as being “a dime store New Deal,” who opposed civil rights, and who thought it would be a good idea to give NATO commanders the power to launch tactical nuclear weapons if they saw fit, rather than wait for presidential approval. Dealing with Goldwater was not Eisenhower’s finest hour. He waffled and wavered while complaining in private that the Arizona senator was both stubborn and stupid. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to oppose him openly, before or after his nomination.
Prior to the 1964 convention, Eisenhower wrote an op-ed piece describing the ideal Republican candidate that applied to Nelson Rockefeller and all comers except Goldwater, but later denied that this was the case when pressed by reporters to admit the obvious. After his nomination, when Goldwater was running against Eisenhower’s record as much as he was Lyndon Johnson’s, Ike campaigned for him.
More disappointing was Eisenhower’s decision to become an advocate for the escalating war that he so sagely avoided in 1954. Like Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson conferred with Eisenhower about foreign policy and the former president was more hawkish on Vietnam than the incumbent. In 1968, however, Eisenhower was less decisive on whether he would endorse Nixon, his vice president of eight years whose daughter Tricia was engaged to his grandson, for the Republican nomination. When he finally got around to it, less than three weeks before the convention, he praised Nixon for many things, but “above all his integrity.”
David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.