"Censorship, in my opinion, is a stupid and shallow way of approaching the solution to any problem. Though sometimes necessary, as witness a professional and technical secret that may have a bearing upon the welfare and very safety of this country, we should be very careful in the way we apply it, because in censorship always lurks the very great danger of working to the disadvantage of the American nation."
Dwight D. Eisenhower
April 24, 1950
As a student of history, I tend to believe that Dwight Eisenhower could not have been elected president in the modern incarnation of a world that was only beginning to develop when he served as America's commander–in–chief.
Presidents tend to be products of their times, not the other way around. Even if they enter the presidency with a specific agenda, circumstances often force them to change direction in ways they never anticipated. Presidents aren't prophets, and few probably would have chosen the crises they had to face.
But they are also influenced by the technology that exists when they live and serve. Some presidents have been slower than others to embrace emerging technology, and some have been ill–equipped to do so. Most presidents have been the first presidents to do something, but history always remembers things like:
- the first president to be photographed (John Quincy Adams — although he wasn't president when the photograph was taken);
- the first president to ride in a train (Andrew Jackson);
- the first president to have a telephone installed in the White House (Rutherford B. Hayes);
- the first president to ride in a submarine and an airplane (Theodore Roosevelt in both instances);
- the first president to own an automobile (William Howard Taft);
- the first president to give a radio broadcast from the White House (Calvin Coolidge), and
- the first president to appear on television (Franklin D. Roosevelt).
Eisenhower, who was born 125 years ago next Wednesday, was the last president born in the 19th century. He was not far removed from his heroic military leadership in World War II, an experience that clearly shaped his view of the world, and he benefited from the public's good will because of it. But America was only beginning to see emerging technological advances, often made possible by war–related research and development, that would come to play important roles in American politics in the not–so–distant future.
In Ike's day, for example, it wasn't crucial to look good on television because TV wasn't yet a commonplace item in every home. By the time Ike's vice president, Richard Nixon, was elected president, there were a lot more TVs in American homes, and how a candidate came across on television was more important. Today it is impossible to imagine a candidate who does not give a good impression on television being much of a success.
In many ways, that is reflected by a growing tendency to favor candidates because of which demographic group(s) they are believed to bring to the electoral table. The face of America is its president, and Americans increasingly show an inclination for that face to be a particular color or gender — and, in equal and opposite proportions, disdain for what Martin Luther King Jr. would call the content of a person's character.
Ike wasn't very photogenic, when you get right down to it. And he wasn't a stemwinder of a speaker, either. But he had some core virtues. Modern politicians would do well to follow his lead. The country certainly would benefit.
He said things that made a lot of sense, things that both Democrats and Republicans ought to study today, but he showed no penchant for what is known today as a "sound bite." He probably thought they were frivolous and overly simple, but such things win elections these days. Common sense often cannot be boiled down to a single phrase that is suitable for a bumper sticker — although "I Like Ike" wasn't bad for its day.
Ike might have been persuaded to run as a Democrat. He had no party affiliation and was pursued by officials from both parties to seek their nominations. It is interesting that House Speaker Sam Rayburn brushed off talk about Eisenhower seeking the presidency when the topic was first raised in 1948: "Good man," Rayburn said, "but wrong business."
Eisenhower decided not to seek the presidency in 1948, and many people thought he had passed up his only opportunity. It was widely assumed at that time that Tom Dewey, who had lost the 1944 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt, would be elected over Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman. It was further assumed that Dewey would be re–elected in 1952 — and Eisenhower, at age 66, would be too old to seek the presidency by 1956.
But Truman won in what is still regarded as a major upset, then became phenomenally unpopular and chose not to seek another term in 1952. By that time, Eisenhower was ready to declare himself a Republican after voicing his disagreements with Democrat policies. He may have been just as motivated by a desire to prevent Sen. Robert Taft, a non–interventionist, from winning the Republican nomination.
Eisenhower did deny Taft the nomination — after one of the closest, most bitterly fought presidential nomination battles in American history — but I have always wondered if it had as much (if not more) to do with Taft's unpopular opposition to the postwar Nuremberg trials. (In the interest of fairness, I should point out that future President John F. Kennedy praised Taft in "Profiles in Courage" for taking a principled stand in spite of public opposition.)
During his tenure, Ike balanced the budget three times and cut the federal debt as a share of GDP. He was criticized as a "do–nothing" president, probably because of his domestic record, particularly Ike's record on civil rights. Seen from the 21st century, Ike's record on promoting racial equality appears to be unimpressive, but he took some important steps. Truman gets credit, and rightfully so, for desegregating the military, but Ike took it farther, ending the segregation that existed in VA hospitals and schools on military installations. His administration also navigated legislative waters in 1957 to pass the first civil rights act since Reconstruction.
Having grown up in Arkansas, one of the first things I learned about Eisenhower was that he enforced a desegregation court order that had been defied by Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas. It's worth noting that one of the members of Congress who opposed the president's action was Democrat John F. Kennedy.
I studied this when I took Arkansas history in school; in those days, I think it was a class everyone took in the fifth grade. For me that would have been more than a decade after the Little Rock Central crisis, but my memory is that our textbooks were brand–spanking new, so new that the books squeaked when you opened a cover or turned a page. Ours was the first class in my hometown to study an unbiased account of that moment in our home state's history. Those books had not been in use the previous year, when a text that was less balanced and tended to favor Faubus was used.
The New Republic's Richard Strout, bewildered by Eisenhower's soaring popularity (which seldom strayed below 50%), complained that "the less he does the more they love him." He didn't understand, as Ike did, that the American public was weary from the back–to–back experiences of the Great Depression and World War II. In the '50s, Americans craved stability.
Black Americans were still inclined to heavily support Democrats, as they had been since the ascent of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932, but in 1956 Eisenhower received 39% of black America's vote when he sought a second term. Within a decade, Republican presidential nominees were receiving much less than 10% of black votes. Win or lose, has any Republican presidential nominee even come close to matching Eisenhower's achievement in the last 60 years?
In his rather modest, soft–spoken Midwestern way, Eisenhower achieved things without feeling the need to resort to self–promotion. He respected constitutional limits — on the use of military power, of the capacity of the government and the role of the president — and worked within them. He didn't try to get around them.
But there were still times when he wanted credit for things he did.
"The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration," he said after leaving the White House. "We kept the peace. People ask how it happened — by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that."
We could use another Eisenhower today. Unfortunately, no candidate in either party remotely resembles him.