Do two make a trend? Richard Cohen of the Washington Post now writes a warm-hearted memoir of a post-White House encounter with President Eisenhower, ending with “He knew precisely who he was. That’s more than can be said for the people who now want to depict him as the eternal innocent.”
It echoes my own experience back then and makes me wonder how many others like us later fell in love with a man they had voted against twice.
In the summer of 1964, I was one of a half dozen magazine editors invited to dinner in Gettysburg.
From the moment Mrs. Eisenhower opened the front door after the Secret Service vanished, we stepped into an earlier small-town world where a long-married couple referred to each other as “Ike” and “Mamie,” urged us to do the same, talked lovingly about their grandchildren and said exactly what was on their minds.
“Ike has just gotten in from golf,” Mrs. Eisenhower told us, “and I insisted he take a few minutes’ rest.” She led us to an enclosed porch facing a putting green, a large meadow and thick woods beyond, of a farmhouse she had bought in 1949 without Ike’s having seen it.
After a few minutes Ike came down, freshly shaved in a dark blue suit complete with vest. Although it was June, air-conditioning chilled the house, a reaction, Mamie explained, to years in the tropics when she found the heat unbearable. Ike’s skin had a pleasant pink cast and, when we shook hands, I could see why millions of voters had found those light blue eyes and that unforced smile irresistible.
We sat on the porch. For a while we talked about golf over drinks and a tray of potato chips and clam dip (“the only hors d’oeuvres you’re going to get,” said our hostess). Ike took them around and served everyone.
As we sipped in silence, the former President looked toward the deepening darkness over the richly green ground that had once been soaked with Union and Confederate blood, and said in an even tone, “About 4:30, I thought I was going out of my mind–I’ve never felt so close to insanity.” He paused. “That’s why I had to get out to the golf course.”
After a moment of silence, I asked, “What made you feel that way?”
“During the day,” he said heavily, “I’ve had dozens of phone calls and telegrams from people I respect telling me what I should do about this Goldwater thing, and each one sure he’s expressing the will of God. I felt like Lincoln who used to wonder why the will of God is revealed to so many others and not to the person who needs to know it.”
Weeks before the 1964 Republican convention, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater seemed certain to be nominated for President, and moderates in the party felt only Eisenhower could stop him to avert a Republican disaster in November.
Strangely, for a man who had commanded fighting forces most of his life, Eisenhower was unwilling to engage in political combat. “I’m not the titular head of the party,” he said, referring with obvious distaste to Richard Nixon, without mentioning his name, as he did several times during the evening.
Then he cited Senator Joe McCarthy who, during Ike’s Presidency, had been terrorizing the country with accusations of Communist sympathies against leading Americans, including Eisenhower’s hero, General George Marshall. When advisors had urged him to speak out, Ike refused: “I’m not going to get into the gutter with that guy.”
Now, on a porch wrapped in darkness, he was reassuring himself that his silence had denied McCarthy attention. “The fellow just wanted publicity.” We were too polite to point out that McCarthy did not fall until confronted by men without Presidential power, Edward R. Murrow on TV and attorney Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Yet, as we talked, what emerged was that Eisenhower’s distaste for hand-to-hand combat rested on deep conviction. (“Ike never argues,” Mamie once said. “He just walks out of the room.”) He told stories of bringing officials with opposing views into the Oval Office and persuading them to compromise. “The road in politics goes only one way,” he said, “ahead–and the best place to travel is the middle, on the good surface. That’s where you can bring the most people with you, not in the ruts and ditches on the extreme sides.”
Ike had been sipping lemonade but, as we were handed our second drinks, he took a highball. “I allow myself only one, but I don’t intend to waste any of it,” draining the glass as we went into dinner. After crab meat and baked chicken, there were individual lemon meringue pies. “My favorite dessert,” he said, “but I have to watch calories so we only have it on special occasions.”
After the meal we went back to the porch, now dimly lit. The drink and dinner must have relaxed Ike. He went into a caustic commentary on the dishonesty of politicians…