Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why I LIke Ike

Moderation shall rule in all things except exact sciences and morality”                         

 Dwight David Eisenhower

A friend recently asked me which President during my life was my favorite. Easy, I said, I like Ike. I usually get a blank stare when I say this and this time was no exception. Many of my contemporaries, Baby Boomers, have little memory of Eisenhower’s administration other than nostalgia – egg crèmes, tail fins, pastel colors, hoop skirts and the like. Those are my memories too. However, I love history and the 50’s provide some interesting perspectives.

Many people think of Ike as a “do nothing” President. By the end of his second term, he was old and ill having survived a heart attack while in office. Energetic and thriving, the WW II generation (“… born in this century…” as JFK put it) were anxious to move on. JFK’s “vigor” (or, “vigah” as he famously said it with his Boston accent) seemed like just the ticket. Ike’s image wasn’t helped by the televised White House tour hosted by Jackie Kennedy in 1962 in which she pointed out the damage to the Oval Office floor from Ike’s golf cleats. He apparently liked to practice his putting from time to time.

Do-nothing? Well, one thing he didn’t do is get us into Vietnam after the French were defeated by the Viet Cong in 1954. Also, he didn’t send troops to Hungary in 1956 to fight the Soviets as many conservatives wanted him to do.

Eisenhower was motivated to run for President because he wanted to ensure that international institutions created after WW II were preserved – NATO, the United Nations. The conservative wing of his party, led by Robert Taft, was "non-interventionist". I don’t know if there were rumors of black helicopters but the sentiment springs from the same well.

Here are some things that do-nothing Ike did. He ended the armed conflict in Korea. He initiated the development of the interstate highway system, joined the space race through the establishment of NASA, paid down the extensive debt from WW II and ran a balanced budget. He eschewed party politics, leaving that burden to his Vice President. Absent politics, how did he decide the best course? In his own words:

“I have one yardstick by which I test every major problem - and that yardstick is: Is it good for America?”

I had the extraordinary privilege of attending a dinner last week at which the guest speaker was US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. The event, arranged by good friend and colleague, Phil Bakes, and sponsored by The Strategic Forum was awe inspiring. Moreover, Justice Breyer gave us another reason to like Ike.

The Justice, who carries a copy of the US Constitution in his coat pocket, cited the Federalist Papers to provide context for the establishment of the Supreme Court. The framers were concerned about the court having too much power, it seems. They were finally persuaded that the Court represented no threat. After all, they had no power of the purse or to order military action.

The power of the Court was put to the test in 1830 when it found that the Cherokee Nation had rights to the land it occupied in Georgia. What did President Andrew Jackson do? He ignored the Court’s ruling and evicted the Cherokees anyway. Their journey west to Oklahoma along with other tribes, Creeks, Choctaw and Seminole, was called the Trail of Tears as roughly half the Native Americans didn’t survive the trip.

Now, I knew all that. What I didn’t know was that this was the first of many Court rulings that Presidents over the succeeding 125 years chose not to enforce. The Court having no military or financial authority was powerless. Until the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education, that is.

The Court’s ruling led to the order to integrate the public schools in Little Rock. Governor Orval Faubus defied the Federal government. Southern congressman warned the President that if he sent in troops, he would have to “occupy” the entire South. Ike’s response? He sent in the 101st Airborne Division. Not only did he force the integration of schools, but he also firmly established the authority of the US Supreme Court by, finally, giving their rulings the force of law.

The Supreme Court is a lightning rod that attracts most of the electricity around emotional issues the Congress hasn’t the courage to address. Yet, that is the role envisioned by the framers. Someone needs to look at laws objectively with the objective of deciding if those laws comply with the intent of the Constitution. Eisenhower’s LEADERSHIP defied the politically expedient course.

Justice Breyer held the audience in the palm of his hand for about an hour. I think everyone took something different away from the evening. The history lesson for me was that it was Ike’s LEADERSHIP that gave the US Supreme Court the force of law.

Eisenhower was a conservative at heart. A reading of history informs us that he saw government’s role as limited to national security, assuring equal justice under the law and responsibility for the basic prosperity of our country. That said, he refused to follow the reactionary course encouraged by some members of his party. He, also, worked against fellow Republican, Joseph McCarthy.

And, that’s why I LIKE IKE.

Which modern President is your favorite? I would love to hear from you. Please scroll down to leave your comments.


  1. Ronnie ...... it just felt good to be an American with Reagan in the Oval Office. He personafide what Presidential meant and what a man that was the head of the World's Major Superpower should be.

    When Reagan was asked this question about the USSR before he won the election in 1980 and he answered it like this "it's simple, we win, they lose." And, they did lose! He believed in Exceptionalism and that this country was great and that we didnt have to apologize to the rest of the world for that. It felt good to be an American and it showed in how people felt.

    He was my favorite .... he was also clairvoyant when he spoke on what the real aim of Socialized Medicine was about .... Control ...... it has nothing to do with providing HealthCare.

  2. This time, no argument! I do sometimes wonder if the man I DID NOT vote for ( to my everlasting regret) would have measured up with the best,Barry Goldwater. Ted

  3. John: Thanks for a well researched and well thought out essay (as always). Not only did I learn things I didn't know but you gave me a whole other appreciation of a man mostly maligned by political history. I'm looking forward to your next post.