Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2005 / 1 Kislev, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Amiable duffer in politics getting well deserved honor | They've finally chosen a site for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, and it's in the right neighborhood: just across from the National Mall near the monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR.

Who would have thought, when his two terms in the White House ended in 1961, that Ike would be classed in that company?

Wasn't he just an amiable duffer in politics, the popular general who muddled through while the country marked time in the conformist 1950s?

That was pretty much the gist of sophisticated opinion as the Eisenhower Era came to a close. To quote an AP story, Ike "remained popular throughout his presidency, but when he left office, historians dismissed him as timid and indecisive."

Yet somehow this mere figurehead of a president ended the Korean War and kept the Cold War from getting hot again; created an interstate highway system; got the first two Civil Rights Acts since Reconstruction through Congress; resolved a constitutional crisis in 1957 when he enforced a federal court order ending racial segregation in the public schools; and calmly gave Joe McCarthy, the most prominent demagogue of the day, enough time and rope to hang himself.

It's amazing how active an "inactive" president can be.

Because his style was undramatic, his critics thought of Ike as ineffective. They dismissed his successes as just luck, as if luck were not, in Branch Rickey's phrase, the residue of design. His inoffensive style bored the intellectuals so much they didn't notice how effective it was.

When his speechwriters handed him the first draft of a presidential address, Ike would go through it deliberately striking any colorful phrases. He knew cleverness, especially for its own sake, tends to divide people rather than unite them. Because he tended to draw people together toward the middle of the political spectrum, the Great Thinkers of both left and right thought him passive.

At the time, J. William Fulbright, a U.S. senator and supposed sage from Arkansas, described the Eisenhower Years as a "drift to disaster." Senator Fulbright himself, that courageous statesman, thought the Crisis of 1957, which pitted the law of the land against popular opinion in his home state, an opportune time to visit Britain.

Remember Quemoy and Matsu? Those tiny islands off the Chinese coast have long since faded in the world's memory, but they were once Page One news. They're not remembered as the fuse that lit World War III because Dwight Eisenhower's specialty was defusing crises.

Ike was a master of what has since come to be recognized as strategic ambiguity. He deserves to be remembered not only for the campaigns he won as a general but the wars he avoided as president.

Largely forgotten along with the names Quemoy and Matsu, now just obscure dots on the map, is that of Murray Kempton -- a columnist whose small but lovely niche in the annals of American opinionation remains unfilled in this era of shout-show rhetoric. A staunch but thinking liberal, he came to realize that Ike was inarticulate like a fox.

Mr. Kempton used to tell a story about Ike and Jim Hagerty, the presidential press secretary who had the thankless task of turning his boss' wordfog into something vaguely approaching English. Jim Hagerty was particularly worried when shells from the Chinese mainland started raining on those Nationalist-held islands, perhaps preparatory to a Communist invasion of Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek, like a tiny Pekinese barking at a huge mastiff, was begging to be "unleashed."

One careless remark from the president, his aide feared, and war might be upon us. He needn't have been concerned. "Don't worry, Jim," Ike told him. "I'll just go out there and confuse 'em." He did. At length. And the crisis passed. Call it peace through confusion.

At home, there were times when Dwight Eisenhower wasn't ambiguous at all. In 1957, a governor of Arkansas named Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to turn back nine Negro students from Little Rock's Central High School, claiming he was just keeping the peace. Ike saw and raised him -- by dispatching the 101st Airborne to Little Rock and federalizing the Guardsmen, demonstrating that the peace could be kept and the law of the land enforced.

There's little doubt today who won that constitutional -- and moral -- confrontation. As attested by the statues of the Little Rock Nine that now adorn the lawn of the state Capitol at Little Rock.

Talk about turning shame into pride: Visitors to the Central High Museum can go over to the 1950s-style television set in the corner and hear excerpts from Ike's address to the nation explaining his decision. What comes through more than the lofty rhetoric is the simple, elemental decency of the man. Sometimes it's not the speech but the speaker that makes the difference.

But the most eloquent, and revealing, message Dwight D. Eisenhower ever composed was one that, thankfully, he never had to deliver. It was a short statement he wrote out and stuck in his billfold on the afternoon of June 5, 1944, in case the invasion of Normandy he had ordered for the next day, D-Day, had failed:

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

Can you imagine any American leader today, civil or military, being willing to take such clear, simple, personal responsibility for his decisions?

That note belongs among the many exhibits at the Eisenhower Memorial now being planned. None would so capture the character of the general, the president and the man.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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