11 March 2012

I liked Ike


Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first U.S. president I knew of (I was an infant during the Truman administration), and I liked him.  He was Pennsylvania Dutch, like my father, and seemed to my youthful mind to be a proper President.  Growing up in a household with one parent a Republican and the other a Democrat, I wound up with zero interest in politics per se until my collegiate years, when the events of the late 60s commanded my attention.

As a blogger, I've posted a smattering of information about him - most remarkably the fact that during his tenure as a conservative Republican, the top income tax rate was 91%, and most memorably his televised "farewell warning" to the nation.

I learned more about him yesterday from an article in The New Republic, which mused about why today's Republicans seldom mention him:
Conservatives had expected that Eisenhower, as the first Republican president since 1932, would repeal the New Deal; instead he augmented and expanded programs like Social Security, thereby giving them bipartisan legitimacy as well as added effectiveness. Conservatives had expected that the president would support Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade to tar all liberals as pro-Communist; instead he denied McCarthy the authority to subpoena federal witnesses and receive classified documents, thereby precipitating the red-baiter’s overreach and fall.

Eisenhower governed as a moderate Republican. While he failed to take bold action against Southern segregation as Democratic liberals and Republican progressives urged him to do, he helped to cool the overheated partisan rhetoric of the preceding two decades and built a middle-of-the-road consensus that marginalized extremists of left and right. He was well aware that his moderation earned him the implacable enmity of GOP conservatives. As he put it, “There is a certain reactionary fringe of the Republican Party that hates and despises everything for which I stand.” But this did not greatly bother him, since he also believed that “their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

The conservative movement’s tablet-keepers have long memories, so it’s unsurprising that Ike has remained a devil figure for the right. What may seem more surprising is that at a moment when Republicans are posing as stalwart defenders of a balanced federal budget, they dismiss the example of the most fiscally conservative president of the past eighty years. Eisenhower balanced the budget three times in his eight years in office, a feat that neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush came close to achieving. Ike cut federal civilian employment by 274,000 and reduced the ratio of the national debt to GNP, though not the absolute level of debt. The economy bloomed under his watch, with high growth, low inflation, and low unemployment.

 But Eisenhower’s economic success matters little to today’s Republicans given his deviations from conservative orthodoxy. Ike disdained partisanship, praised compromise and cooperation, and pitched his appeals to independent voters. He approved anti-recessionary stimulus spending, extended unemployment compensation, and raised the minimum wage. He pioneered federal aid to education and created the largest public-works program in history in the form of the interstate highway system. He levied gasoline taxes to pay for the highway construction, and believed that cutting income taxes when the federal government was running a deficit would be an act of gross fiscal irresponsibility. The Republican presidential candidates who are beating the drum to bomb Iran are in stark contrast with Eisenhower’s refusal to intervene in Vietnam. And conservative hawks find something vaguely pinko about Ike’s drive to restrain the pace of the arms race and his famous warning about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”

 In fairness to today’s Republicans, Eisenhower’s values—prudence, pragmatism, reasonableness, frugality, and respect for the past—find little resonance on either side of our present partisan divide, or in American culture as a whole.
Some day I should read a full biography of him; I'm open to suggestions as to which one to choose. 

There's more at The New Republic, via The Dish.

15 comments:

  1. I've heard great things about this new biography of Ike.
    Amazon.com: Eisenhower in War and Peace eBook: Jean Edward Smith: Kindle Store http://amzn.to/xWekA8

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    1. Saved to my library list. Thanks, anonymous person.

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  2. "In fairness to today’s Republicans, Eisenhower’s values—prudence, pragmatism, reasonableness, frugality, and respect for the past—find little resonance on either side of our present partisan divide, or in American culture as a whole."

    Is there any greater shame that this, that neither side has it in their heart to be prudent, pragmatic, reasonable, frugal, or respectful of the past? We have allowed the extremists on liberal and conservative TV/radio to think for us. They bask in the glow of our division, joy when someone goes down in flames.

    I'd rather have a "plain" president like Ike...and I wasn't even born then.

    SIGH...........

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    1. I'm sorry, but actual "liberals", progressives or the hard left have nobody in D.C. to represent them, save for probably Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich who'll be gone soon after his recent loss. Politics have been a one-sided battle with neoliberalism dominating. A guy like Clinton is only "liberal" if you allow him to be defined by far right wing definitions. Clinton severely restricted aid for the poor, engaged in war, and helped to *continue* to set the table (with Rubin) for the financial crisis. It speaks volumes to how far right we've swung that so many people, liberals included, look back at the "old style conservatives" with an almost kind of admiration.

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  3. The reason the Right is now ruled by The Lunatic Right is because that his how George the Senior got into office. Born again W recruited then all to vote his dad in- and we've all suffered the consequences since.

    Eisenhower well knew the evils of war, he wanted no more of it if he could help it. And BTW- the reason he was able to pass the legislation necessary to expand the interstate highway system (the only reason he was able to pass it) was because he sold it to his fellow Republicans as an absolute necessity which would sustain the rigors of transporting military grade vehicles across the US. Republicans had no desire whatsoever to provide these roads solely for the everyday use and advantage of the American taxpayer.

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    1. I remember being told that the interstate highways had design constraints that required straight, bridge-free segments that could be used for takeoff and landing of military aircraft. Don't know if that's true.

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    2. Or for emergency landings, supposedly at 5 mi. intervals- Myth.

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  4. My parents were Republicans and supported Eisenhower. I remember campaigning for him in the 1956 election (I was a sophomore in high school). I really liked Ike. However, when I was first eligible to vote in 1964 (you had to be 21 then), my Republican choice was Barry Goldwater vs. Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater seemed like a far right-wing nut whose saber rattling scared me, and Johnson seemed to me to exemplify the Southern good ol'boy crook. I have been active in politics since my teens, and changed my registration to Democratic in the 80's, when the far right began asserting itself so vigorously. I had also started teaching in inner city Los Angeles, and learned that so much of what I had taken as Gospel truth about the poor, welfare moms, etc. was just plain untrue. These days, I'm pretty darned left wing.

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  5. The local community college near me is presenting a 5 part lecture series on Eisenhower. The first presentation a few days ago was actually by his grandson David. Extremely interesting to say the least. It was neat to hear David talk about the president as a grandfather at some points and as president proper at others. One interesting fact was his comparison of Eisenhower to Clinton. Both were the perfect model of a conservative and a liberal yet they both managed to govern from the middle. I am a democrat but I can't wait to see the rest of the series. Camden County College in NJ if interested!

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  6. My memory of Eisenhower (I was in my early teens when he left office) is that he played a lot of golf, when he wasn't having heart attacks. There was a "wind-up doll" joke about him that went something like this: If Ike were a wind up doll, you'd wind it up and nothing would happen for 8 years. Obviously, that is an exaggeration of his record: He did get all those wonderful highways built, and he did send American military advisers and the CIA to Vietnam. All said, I admit he was better than the current crop of politicians, on both sides of the aisle.

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  7. during his tenure as a conservative Republican, the top income tax rate was 91%

    The main reason that he's not mentioned. The prosperity that went along with that pretty much destroys all supply-side, anti-tax arguments, and those are the mantras of the GOP.

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  8. We must remember that Ike was elected when the US was not involved in any wars, we were in a very prosperous time, and the social revolution(s) had not yet begun. He happened to be there at what has been said was the best of times for the country.

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  9. For a biography, the one you want is the one by Stephen Ambrose. Either the multivolume or the one-volume distillation I seem to remember.

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    1. Found it in the catalogue; thanks, Jack. Interestingly, I have two other books by him on my "to be read" shelf - one about the transcontinental railroad, and another about Lewis & Clark.

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    2. Read both as soon as you can. The books will blow your mind. I suggest his works on WWII (Citizen Soldiers especially)! It should be the duty of every American to read at least one book by Ambrose.

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