A Look Back at Eisenhower
DURING this year of the centennial of former President Eisenhower's birth, many who had close-in views of Ike are recalling memories of him. Mine come from two interviews I had at Gettysburg, one in 1964 and another in 1965. I saw a serious Eisenhower - a smile on greeting but few thereafter. He was not pompous. But he was always the great general, never permitting his visitor to feel fully comfortable.
At the time I recalled that Eisenhower's press secretary, Jim Hagerty, had once told me that he, too, had been given the cold, military treatment on his first meeting with Eisenhower. Hagerty said that when he didn't flinch - didn't bat an eye even when Ike got a little angry - his new boss finally said, ``You don't scare easily, do you, Jim?'' After that, said Hagerty, he got along fine with Eisenhower.
During my interviews, Eisenhower did show a couple of flashes of anger. I mentioned the assertion by then President Lyndon Johnson that as Senate majority leader he had been particularly cooperative with President Eisenhower. Ike bristled and said: ``That's what he says!'' Clearly, he didn't care for LBJ.
Again, when Harry Truman's name came up, Eisenhower growled just a bit. He said he wasn't about to discuss ``that fellow.''
This animosity was, of course, returned with equally intense feeling by Mr. Truman. During several interviews I had with retired President Truman in Independence, Mo., and Kansas City, Truman, who was always easy to talk to and who always made a reporter feel completely at home, would invariably find a moment to lash out at Eisenhower. He would usually end up by asserting that Ike was a terrible president, one of the worst of them all. ``And I've made a study of our presidents,'' he would add.
Earlier Eisenhower and Truman had been good friends. Indeed, Truman and the Democratic Party sought to persuade Eisenhower to become their presidential candidate in 1948. Eisenhower declined, saying he had no interest in politics. Instead, he became president of Columbia University.
Truman then ran and pulled off that astonishing victory over Dewey in 1948. With his admiration for Eisenhower still high, he talked Ike into resigning from his Columbia position and returning to Europe as NATO commander.
Eisenhower returned all this courting from Truman by accepting the GOP presidential nomination in 1952, and the Missourian never forgave him.
The mutual dislike grew, intensified by Eisenhower's criticism of the Truman administration during the 1952 presidential campaign. On the ride to the inauguration in January 1953, the two men, sitting together in the back seat of a limousine, are reported to have said not one word to each other.
During our conversations, Eisenhower stressed a president's need for common sense. He said that a leader should take problems seriously but should not take himself seriously. This comment surprised me. The former president seemed to me to be someone who took himself quite seriously - but perhaps I was wrong.
Eisenhower talked at length about what he regarded as public confusion over ``false labels and false political images.'' He recalled that Ohio's Sen. Robert Taft, known as ``Mr. Conservative,'' took a more liberal stand than he did on such issues as housing and education.
He said he felt that press criticism of presidents goes too far at times. He mentioned adverse press treatment of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and the damage this did to Lincoln's war effort. It was apparent that Ike believed the press was overly critical of the accelerated US involvement in Vietnam brought about by President Johnson.
Would Eisenhower have changed his view of the media had he lived to see the later stages of the Vietnam war? What would he have thought about the enterprising journalism that uncovered the Watergate scandal?
I'd like to think that Ike's ``common-sense'' approach would have caused a reappraisal.