Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Liking Ike: A Memory

"Did you notice," E.J. Dionne asks, "that the president did not choose to quote any of his party’s own giants--Franklin D. Roosevelt (though FDR got a side mention), Harry S Truman or John F. Kennedy? Instead, he quoted a Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower."

For those who doubt that Barack Obama has anything in common with Ike, herewith the story of a memorable evening with the nation's 34th president:

In the summer of 1964 I fell in love with the man I had voted against twice. After Eisenhower's retirement, I was one of a half dozen magazine editors invited to dinner in Gettysburg.

From the moment Mrs. Eisenhower opened the front door after the Secret Service vanished, we stepped into an earlier small-town world where a long-married couple referred to each other as "Ike" and "Mamie," urged us to do the same, talked lovingly about their grandchildren and said exactly what was on their minds.

"Ike has just gotten in from golf," Mrs. Eisenhower told us, "and I insisted he take a few minutes' rest." She led us to an enclosed porch facing a putting green, a large meadow and thick woods beyond, of a farmhouse she had bought in 1949 without Ike's having seen it.

After a few minutes Ike came down, freshly shaved in a dark blue suit complete with vest. Although it was June, air-conditioning chilled the house, a reaction, Mamie explained, to years in the tropics when she found the heat unbearable. Ike's skin had a pleasant pink cast and, when we shook hands, I could see why millions of voters had found those light blue eyes and that unforced smile irresistible.

We sat on the porch. For a while we talked about golf over drinks and a tray of potato chips and clam dip ("the only hors d'oeuvres you're going to get," said our hostess). Ike took them around and served everyone.

As we sipped in silence, the former President looked toward the deepening darkness over the richly green ground that had once been soaked with Union and Confederate blood, and said in an even tone, "About 4:30, I thought I was going out of my mind--I've never felt so close to insanity." He paused. "That's why I had to get out to the golf course."

After a moment of silence, I asked, "What made you feel that way?"

"During the day," he said heavily, "I've had dozens of phone calls and telegrams from people I respect telling me what I should do about this Goldwater thing, and each one sure he's expressing the will of God. I felt like Lincoln who used to wonder why the will of God is revealed to so many others and not to the person who needs to know it."

Weeks before the 1964 Republican convention, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater seemed certain to be nominated for President, and moderates in the party felt only Eisenhower could stop him to avert a Republican disaster in November.

Strangely, for a man who had commanded fighting forces most of his life, Eisenhower was unwilling to engage in political combat. "I'm not the titular head of the party," he said, referring with obvious distaste to Richard Nixon, without mentioning his name, as he did several times during the evening.

Then he cited Senator Joe McCarthy who, during Ike's Presidency, had been terrorizing the country with accusations of Communist sympathies against leading Americans, including Eisenhower's hero, General George Marshall. When advisors had urged him to speak out, Ike refused: "I'm not going to get into the gutter with that guy."

Now, on a porch wrapped in darkness, he was reassuring himself that his silence had denied McCarthy attention. "The fellow just wanted publicity." We were too polite to point out that McCarthy did not fall until confronted by men without Presidential power, Edward R. Murrow on TV and attorney Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Yet, as we talked, what emerged was that Eisenhower's distaste for hand-to-hand combat rested on deep conviction. ("Ike never argues," Mamie once said. "He just walks out of the room.") He told stories of bringing officials with opposing views into the Oval Office and persuading them to compromise. "The road in politics goes only one way," he said, "ahead--and the best place to travel is the middle, on the good surface. That's where you can bring the most people with you, not in the ruts and ditches on the extreme sides."

Ike had been sipping lemonade but, as we were handed our second drinks, he took a highball. "I allow myself only one, but I don't intend to waste any of it," draining the glass as we went into dinner. After crab meat and baked chicken, there were individual lemon meringue pies. "My favorite dessert," he said, "but I have to watch calories so we only have it on special occasions."

After the meal we went back to the porch, now dimly lit. The drink and dinner must have relaxed Ike. He went into a caustic commentary on the dishonesty of politicians, with emphasis on Goldwater:

"He came to tell me he was going to vote against the civil rights bill as a matter of conscience. I said I wouldn't ask any man to go against his conscience, but that if I were a Senator I'd vote for it. Even an imperfect bill would help balance eighty years of oppression. But what I couldn't understand was his attempt to keep the bill from coming to a vote. If I were to comment, I'd crucify him for that. But I was not going to say anything publicly."

Goldwater then told reporters that Ike "would not hold the vote against me." When Eisenhower complained about the misrepresentation, Goldwater assured him it would be corrected. We pointed out that it hadn't been, and Ike shrugged. The sequence just confirmed his low opinion of politicians and journalists.

As he told stories of being misquoted and misunderstood, something became clear about his cast of mind. Described by critics as intellectually limited and unwilling to commit himself, Eisenhower may simply have been a man who gave his full attention to one situation at a time, tried to do "the right thing" and was baffled when others looked below the surface or connected it with what had gone before or might come after.

He confirmed this impression describing the difficulty he was having with memoirs about his Presidency, as opposed to those about the war. His approach was chronological, rather than subjective and thematic. He seemed unwilling to look below the visible aspects of experience. (That this was a matter of disposition is suggested by his definition of an intellectual as "a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.")

His passion for golf seemed a metaphor for his approach to politics and life. Unlike tennis, you don't react to an opponent. You focus on one stroke and then go on to the next. There is no ambiguity about the result--your score is a precise number. Even in competition, the social coziness of a foursome masks the desire to prevail over others, and jokes about slyness and cheating defuse competitiveness into laughter and camaraderie.

But despite this inflexible mindset, I felt myself drawn to Eisenhower's palpable decency and lack of pretension. I wondered what was below that controlled surface, particularly when we looked at his unframed oil paintings stacked in a corner. (He spent much of his retirement behind the easel, another solitary activity that required intense concentration on the next stroke.)

As we looked at the paintings, he kept pointing out his shortcomings ("Sometimes I work on one for years without getting it right"}. Most resembled picture-postcard illustrations, the equivalents of polite conversation. But there was an exception.

He had drawn it from memory, he said. It showed a solitary figure in a rowboat at sunset, a dark silhouette in the subdued gleam of a lake. Above was a truly extraordinary sky, bursting with fragments of vivid color--light and dark blues, reds, purples. He expressed pleasure at his own daring in painting that sky.

As we started to leave, Ike seemed reluctant to see us go. He had an early golf date in the morning but protested that he wasn't tired and dawdled while we made our way from the dark porch into the glare of the living room.

For a moment I found myself at his shoulder. He stood militarily erect, but a network of cross-hatched lines at the back of his neck testified to age. I felt a surge of sorrow and affection. Whatever reservations I might have had about him as a President, I was drawn to the man--I would have trusted him with everything I own.

As we sorted ourselves into the limousine that would take us back to Manhattan and drove off, Ike and Mamie stood in the driveway, waving us on our way.

Remembering that evening when Barack Obama was only two years old also recalls what he told 60 Minutes during last year's campaign: "I am a practical person. One of the things I'm good at is getting people in a room with ...different ideas who sometimes violently disagree with each other and finding common ground, and a sense of common direction."

As he moves ahead, Americans can only hope he puts that Eisenhower-like skill to good use.


John Freeland said...

Mr. Stein:

My favorite stuff of yours (and it's all good) are these personal narratives. Thanks again.

Holte Ender said...

What a poignant story, I did notice Obama's mention of DDE, but paid it no mind, if he had cited Reagan or Nixon I would have been shocked, but Eisenhower no problem. I have always regarded him as a gentleman and man of great courage and leadership,the warnings he gave us when he made his farewell address to the nation, have yet to be heeded.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this Mr. Stein.

Joe Hornbaker said...

What a splendid story. Many thanks for it.

Fuzzy Slippers said...

Oh my goodness, this post takes my breath away. You write like an angel, and this post gave me goosebumps it's so gorgeously written. I love love love your way with words and meaning.