The Real Ike
by Richard Cohen
Washington Post Columnist
One day in 1967, Dwight D. Eisenhower came to New York for the opening of an exhibit of his paintings at the old Huntington Hartford Museum on Columbus Circle. Ike, like Churchill, was an amateur painter and, like Churchill, was more ambitious than talented. Ike’s paintings were simple farm scenes and the like, and you would think therefore that they supported the concept proposed for the Eisenhower memorial on the Mall: a statue of Ike as a barefoot farm boy. This is not the Ike I met that day.
I was a new reporter for United Press International at the time and the opening of the Ike exhibit had somehow been overlooked. At the last minute though, someone noticed it listed on upcoming events and with virtually no one in the office, the bureau chief turned to me and uttered words almost never heard at UPI: “Take a cab.”
Down the elevator I went and out onto East 42nd Street, and in no time I was at the museum. Too late. It was over. Everyone was gone. No Ike. But … wait! There, coming in the door, was the former president himself. He, too, was late. I approached and introduced myself. We shook hands. “Why don’t we walk around together, Cohen?” Ike offered. And so, amazingly, we did.
Ike’s paintings represented exactly what I thought of the man. I was the son of liberal Democrats, an Adlai Stevenson man (had I been old enough to vote in 1952 or 1956). Ike to me and my family was the dullard, the good-natured dolt who had failed to stand up to Sen. Joe McCarthy and was inexcusably tardy confronting Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who was keeping some black children out of Central High School in Little Rock.
The New York Post was then the nation’s foremost liberal newspaper and carried the cartoons of the great Herblock (Herbert Block) of The Washington Post. Herb was tough on Ike and his meandering ways. Herb gave McCarthy a bucket of tar and a fat brush, and he gave Ike a golf club — the demagogue versus the putterer who spoke in garbles. Ike was ineffective and, besides, a Republican. What’s to like?
So we walked around, Ike and I, touring the gallery. He told me he had more time to paint when he was president than he did as a private citizen because his day was better organized. He told me he used to paint in a small closet under the White House stairs. (I think it might be where Warren Harding used to take a mistress.) Ike was charming. I got to like him. Then we stopped before one of his paintings of his Gettysburg, Pa., farm — a barn, a field, maybe a cow or two. Still thinking him something of a yokel, I uttered a line so patronizing I hesitate to repeat it. “What’s the symbolism in this one, general?”
Ike knew what I was saying, but he did not take umbrage. In that plain flat-as-Kansas accent of his he turned to me and said, “Let’s get something straight here, Cohen. They would have burned this (expletive) a long time ago if I weren’t the president of the United States.”
Whoosh! I came right out my shoes. This was not the naive farm boy miscast as president. This was the suffer-no-fools, down-to-earth warrior-cum-politician who knew many things, not the least of which was that a museum show did not make him a painter. He could not be flattered.
I wish I could remember how much time I spent with Ike that day. All I can remember is that incident and a general feeling of friendliness. I have told this story many times over the years. Those who knew Ike were not surprised by his reaction or by his language. (He was an accomplished curser.) I saw Ike one other time — bumped into him on the street — and watched as ordinary people, catching him out the corner of their eyes, went ramrod straight and threw him a salute. He returned them and kept on walking.
Ike as the farm boy is not the Ike I met that day long ago. He had once been that person to me, but his image changed in front of a painting. 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.
Richard Cohen’s email address is cohenr(at)washpost.com. (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group