It is impossible to watch Barack Obama speaking at Normandy without comparing him to the giants of that period, namely Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Considered in absolute terms, President Obama has been a mild catastrophe; in relative terms, alongside Roosevelt and Eisenhower, he looks like a toddler playing dress-up.
Of course it is difficult to stand alongside those two, for any modern public figure. But President Obama’s particular vices — his vanity, his self-dramatizing, his love of practically Roman levels of pomp — are cast into sharp relief when he is considered alongside President Eisenhower, who was caricatured as a golf-addicted caretaker during his presidency but whose reputation, considerable as it was during his life, has if anything risen in recent years. National Review, which was founded in part to oppose conciliatory Eisenhower-style Republicanism, has reconsidered him. Jay Nordlinger wrote an excellent piece on his much-abused farewell address, and I made the conservative case for him in “Why Like Ike.”
Presidents are, unfortunately, symbols, which means that style matters, and President Eisenhower’s was the antithesis of the prevailing presidential ethic. Having commanded the D-Day invasion, he did not have anything to prove to the public; having spent years juggling the supernatural egos and competing agendas of Roosevelt, Churchill, and de Gaulle, he was confident in his political skills. As I wrote:
Comes the time, comes the man. Eisenhower entered office with ridiculous approval ratings — and he left office with the same ratings. In his last years, he was not only the most respected political figure in the United States, he was the most admired American bar none, at home and abroad. He executed a tremendously important policy agenda, and he made it look easy — but it wasn’t: There were real economic and social challenges at home, and the Soviets and the Chinese were playing for keeps. But Eisenhower had a deep appreciation for those most conservative of virtues: steadiness, judgment, predictability, attention to detail. It was an era of few surprises from the White House.
As though to underscore that point, his last notable public act was presenting the Eisenhower Trophy to Arnold Palmer at the Bob Hope Classic before shooting a hole-in-one (his first ever) at Seven Lakes. That being done, he died and was laid in state in an $80 Army-issue coffin in his customary field jacket — no fruit salad on his chest, just the five stars signifying his rank as General of the Army. Along with General Pershing, he was one of the few officers to have worn five stars — meaning that he outranked George Washington. (Washington got his five stars posthumously.)
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,” Eisenhower proclaimed, and he meant it. He took courageous stands on everything from Suez to civil rights, but he was never a preening moralist in the mold of Barack Obama, nor was he constantly congratulating himself on his courage like, to pull from a few recent memoir titles, Karl Rove, Tim Pawlenty, Barbara Lee, and Max Cleland. Eisenhower’s personal style and his policy agenda were in a sense perfectly matched: Both appealed to that broad swath of American society that thinks of itself as the middle class. Like Ike, they had served in the Army, come home with a new interest in higher education, played golf, watched westerns, hoped for better things for themselves and their children, and dreamed about retiring to a country club in California. Mamie Eisenhower insisted that the White House kitchen recycle leftover Cornish hens from official dinners as chicken salad — not exactly Michelle Obama’s style. Or Nancy Reagan’s.
Eisenhower referred to his presidential agenda as “waging peace,” which was more complicated than it sounds. As Jay notes, President Eisenhower was not the proto-noninterventionist that some of his latter-day admirers imagine him to have been, but he also knew when to pull the leash on his more aggressive officers and aides. President Eisenhower waged peace with an intelligently restructured but world-leading military, responsible and modest conservative government at home, and growth-oriented economic reforms. But he was not, in his own estimate, successful, and toward the end of his farewell address he introduces a note of self-criticism: “Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war — as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years — I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.” The best he could say, though, was that war had been avoided. The stakes — the survival of civilization — were high, and the mission was not only a political and military campaign but a spiritual one as well.
Peace, prosperity, purpose: The modern Republican party could do worse than that agenda. So could the country, as we have been learning the hard way for some time now.