Saturday, October 05, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirty-Four, Why DID Everyone Like Ike?

So, Professor Barber, why DID everyone like Ike, uh Dwight D. Eisenhower?
...Furthermore, Eisenhower often displayed optimism; he was certainly no gloomy Gus in the White House, though he was often irritable and depressed... (Presidential Character, p. 179)
...Eisenhower did not feel a duty to save the world or to become a great hero, but simply to contribute what he could the best he was able... Yet Eisenhower very much wanted to make a contribution.  Once while laboring over a speech he said, "You know, it is so difficult.  You come up to face these terrible issues, and you know that what is in almost everyone's heart is a wish for peace, and you want so much to do something..." (p.182)

To this, even with Barber's assertion Eisenhower was a Passive-Negative Character:
The key orientation is toward performing duty with modesty, and the political adaptation is characterized by protective retreats to principle, ritual and personal virtue.  The political strength of this character is its legitimacy.  It inspires trust in the incorruptibility and the good intentions of the man... (p.182)

Eisenhower came to the Presidency as the commanding general of European forces during the Second World War, one of a select group of non-political generals - Washington and Taylor - to do so (other generals like Grant, Hayes and Garfield - mostly from the Civil War - had been converted into true Republicans as part of their response to the war and Reconstruction politics).  How he came to be the general-in-chief of a major theater of war speaks to his basic character traits of Modesty and (for the Passive-Negative) Duty.

Eisenhower was not the best-known candidate for the job of representing the U.S. among the Allied forces against Hitler's Axis.  He'd been a middle-of-the-pack officer pretty much from West Point onward, and while he'd worked hard to earn his promotions up to colonel by 1940 he still lacked a few things such as battlefield experience.  But he knew tanks and how to deploy them, impressed during the training exercises before the U.S. entered the war (by 1940 FDR's administration and the Army both knew war was coming), and got promoted up to brigadier general on the eve of conflict.

One joke floating around was that General George Marshall, the head of the whole Army at the time, promoted Eisenhower to head up Allied efforts in Europe because Eisenhower had served as an aide to General MacArthur, and that the experience of massaging that huge ego made Ike the best expert to keep the British and French allied generals in line.  But the truth of it was Marshall saw in Eisenhower the organizational skills needed to manage such a massive endeavor, and the sense of Duty to the cause to make it work.

Marshall must have seen something else, the unique trait Eisenhower had that no other P-N character showed: Ike was unusually optimistic and forward-thinking.  He didn't see disasters as such, he saw them as opportunities.

During the beginning stages of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, Eisenhower met with his subordinate generals about counter-offensives.  Rather than take the gloomy approach that the unexpected German offensive could divide the Allied front and prolong the war, Eisenhower saw it as a chance to finally get the Germans out in the open and finished off rather than slogging through a potentially massive defensive effort.  He's on record saying "The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not a disaster.  There will be only cheerful faces at this table."  He then turned to General Patton - his blood knight - and asked how quickly they could relieve the American paratroopers at Bastogne.  Patton said 48 hours, and pulled it off.

Making the call on D-Day.  The weather for early June 1944 was wet, rainy, windy, terrible for beach landings and paratrooper drops.  The Germans, having developed excellent profiles on opposing generals, figured Eisenhower's overly cautious nature would never give the order to go in bad weather.  And in most cases for a P-N character they'd be right.  But there was that optimism: the Allied meteorologists told Ike there was a chance the morning of June 6th would have a slight window before dawn to work out.  Knowing that June was the last best chance to get into Europe before summer turned into winter, and that he needed to go sooner or later, Eisenhower went against his nature (ironically, his sense of Duty to get the landings over with made him do it) and made the call.  Even then, he knew it was a giant risk.  He wrote one letter praising the troops and cheering them onto victory.  He wrote a second letter in case the landings failed, and insisted that any blame be put on him ("It is mine alone.").

It was not only Eisenhower's judgment... it was not only Eisenhower's organizational skills... it was Eisenhower's Modesty, his acceptance of Duty, his non-Negative sense of Optimism in others that made him so likable.

And that likability made him the hot political ticket once World War II ended.  Like his predecessor Taylor, Eisenhower had made it a point to not even vote in elections up until 1948 or so (both Democratic Party leaders and Republicans sent out feelers).  He preferred at the time to retire out as Chief of Staff (having reorganized the entire military into the Department of Defense) and serve as school President at Columbia U.  By 1950 he accepted the call back to duty by becoming the commander of NATO forces and used his organizational skills to make that nascent military alliance work.  By 1952, with the nation deeply mired in Korea, and pressed ever more by the people around him, Ike acceded to the demand he run for office.

And he won in massive landslides (1952 and re-election 1956).  "I Like Ike" being one of the most successful - and obvious - campaign slogans of all time.

But Eisenhower didn't enter the White House at an easy time.  Solving Korea - with an armistice that has yet been resolved to this day - was one thing but the Cold War - an ongoing chess match with the Soviet Union over Europe, Asia and the Middle East - was something else.  The Cold War affected domestic issues in the form of political witch hunts (the Red Scare) led by a glory-hogging Joseph McCarthy.  And other domestic issues involved the growing Civil Rights movement that started with Truman's desegregation of the military and was moving on towards public services and education.

Eisenhower's Passive-Negative traits did not put him in with the Far Right forces of the Republican Party, obsessed as they were with hunting down suspected Communists throughout society.  But it made it difficult for him to openly confront the likes of McCarthy.  To Ike's credit, McCarthy self-destructed by going after too many targets that wanted to fight back, especially Ike's beloved Army, and he used that distance to let McCarthy bury himself which pretty much quieted down the anti-Communist fervor for the rest of the Fifties to a low boil.

As Barber noted, Eisenhower may have fit for the most part into the P-N category but as President Eisenhower defied certain traits through both his habits and his optimism.  By habits I mean his organization: the West Wing as we know it - with a Chief of Staff, organized departments handling communications, interdepartmental issues, and policy essentials - came entirely from Eisenhower.  By his optimism I point to how Eisenhower not only kept New Deal era economic policies that worked (where the Republicans would have considered them no longer essential once the economy was chugging along and the War Effort was over), but pushed his own national agendas such as the Interstate Highway system.

If Ike had weaknesses it was a maddening level of complacency, his hands-off approach to how the various departments in the Executive branch handled themselves as well as a hands-off approach with dealing with Congress.  On one hand Eisenhower's two-term administration was relatively free of scandal - the worst was that his Chief of Staff was caught lying about an oriental rug and fur coat his wife had received as gifts - but on the other the administration allowed some branches - especially the CIA with their activities in Iran and Central America - a wide scope of questionable activity.

And while Eisenhower continued Truman's work on Civil Rights - Ike declared discrimination a "National Security issue" because Communists used it as an argument against American democratic ideals - he didn't pursue it as aggressively as Truman had.  He worked with Congress to pass legislation to create offices for civil rights investigations in the Justice Department but left them ill-defined and underfunded.  In the best respect Eisenhower's greatest achievement was calling out the National Guard and 101st Airborne to Little Rock Arkansas to enforce the court rulings to desegregate schools.  But past that Eisenhower's administration did not aggressively pursue methods to end segregation in businesses and communities: Ike would only go so far in the use of executive authority.  Passive-Negatives do not like using the full weight of the Executive branch the way an Active-Positive or Active-Negative would.

Eisenhower's legacy as President was mixed when he left office and it wasn't until well into Clinton's tenure that a better understanding of Ike's performance as leader could be seen.  The argument against him was that Eisenhower didn't "do anything," (my own father, Old School Republican that he is, said this today as I was writing portions of this article over at the parental units' home, they needed help updating their computer stuff, anyways I digress) especially in the face of McCarthyism and the growing Civil Rights fight.  But in other ways Ike did in office what was expected of him: the mentor figure, the retired general / father figure neither passionate nor angry, reserved in judgment and basically right on all matters.  He focused on the job at hand and oversaw a relatively stable period of post-war growth and adjustment.  His pursuit of the Interstate Highway construction proved one of the biggest job creating government programs in history - bigger than any New Deal project - and had a major impact on interstate commerce, population growth and dispersal, and development of cultural trends (car culture, travel, etc).

Above all, much like his Passive-Negative model of old - George Washington - Eisenhower may well have been the last true non-partisan figure in American 20th Century politics.  Republican more by necessity than ideology, Eisenhower was a self-described moderate who sought to balance out the Far Right McCarthyist elements of the party through his personal example and calls for common sense solutions.  Conservative only in action rather than thought, Eisenhower today is the go-to figure of moderates (whoever may be left) within the modern GOP.

Next up: The key word is survival on the New Frontier (sorry, I keep thinking of that Donald Fagan song)

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