Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Bland Leading the Bland

When the Republicans gathered for their 1956 national convention, they were there to renominate a president who had been far from a sure thing to seek a second term almost a year earlier.

President Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack on Sept. 24, 1955, and he had undergone surgery related to his Crohn's disease early in 1956. Thus, there was some uncertainty whether Eisenhower would seek re–election — at least initially.

However, the president bounced back, and speculation in Republican circles shifted to the question of whether the vice president, Richard Nixon, would be retained.

As a matter of fact, that was a reasonable source for guesswork — even though it seems that, in modern times, almost no vice president has been spared such speculation when the president was about to begin a re–election campaign. At least, no incumbent vice president in my memory has been considered a lock for renomination.

Until the president took it upon himself to put such gossip to rest.

Whether most, all or any of the presidents in my lifetime really were considering new running mates, I do not know. The only president in my life who actually chose a running mate other than the incumbent vice president was Gerald Ford — and neither he nor the vice president had been elected.

But there is enough evidence available that we can be reasonably certain that, in 1956, Eisenhower was interested in a new running mate.

Eisenhower, it has been said, believed Nixon was too partisan and too controversial. Ike's party had lost control of both houses of Congress in the 1954 midterm elections, and he may have wanted a vice president he thought would work better with Democrats.

Some historians have said Eisenhower approached Nixon about taking a Cabinet post. But Nixon was popular with the base of the Republican Party and, if he was asked to withdraw, he must have declined.

It's possible, too, that Ike never asked Nixon to fall on his sword.

Anyway, in the end, Nixon remained on the ticket. What's more, he re–defined the vice presidency. He used it as a platform from which he campaigned for numerous Republican candidates in 1954. In the process, he assembled a devoted network of grassroots Republican allies across the country — which may have been the reason why Eisenhower relented and kept him on the ticket. He may have wished to avoid a confrontation within the party.

That, in fact, was how Nixon built the array of connections that led to his nomination and election in 1968 — by campaigning for Republicans from coast to coast in the 1966 midterm elections. And, in 1968, Nixon pioneered the "Southern strategy" that continues to influence American politics.

But, in 1956, all that was still in the future.

It may be hard for 21st century observers to fathom, but there really was nothing particularly extreme about the 1956 Republican platform. In fact, the 1956 convention was largely absent any drama to speak of.

Consequently, when the Republicans gathered in San Francisco, there was no suspense about the identities of the nominees. There really wasn't much suspense about anything. It seems to have been a largely by–the–script convention; Eisenhower was renominated by acclamation.

But the historical perspective is fascinating — for the Republican Party that so gleefully renominated Eisenhower 55 years ago is very different today. Passages from Ike's acceptance speech testify to that.

Eisenhower may have been a rather bland, plain vanilla president, but he did possess some beliefs that were bold even for his time — and almost certainly would be considered too liberal by modern GOP standards.

"Our party detests the technique of pitting group against group for cheap political advantage," Eisenhower told the delegates.

He also said, "The Republican Party is the party of the future because it is the party that draws people together, not drives people apart."

One can only wonder what Ike would think of today's Republican Party.

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