Dwight Eisenhower usually didn’t vote. When he did, he never told anyone about what or who he voted for. For years, people speculated about his political leanings. He was old school Army. His didn’t lean- he served. In 1947, Harry Truman, a Democrat, offered him a crack at the vice presidency. Ike declined. In 1952, 18,000 people filled Madison Square Garden for a rally organized by a citizen’s committee for Ike. The event included messages from Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Clark Gable, all urging him to run for office. It ended in Irving Berlin leading a rendition of God Bless America. In his book Ike’s Bluff, author Evan Thomas detailed his response. To a friend, he wrote “I can’t tell you what an emotional upset it is for one to realize suddenly that he himself may be the symbol of that longing and hope.”
The next day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (retired), tentatively accepted the invitation to run for the office of president-as a Republican.
Less than a decade after he led the largest invasion in the history of mankind to defeat the most dangerous enemy in the history of mankind, Ike was sworn in as our 34th president. He assumed office during the war with Korea and ended it within a hundred days.
Ike hated politicians-Democrats and Republicans alike. He disliked the military brass at the Pentagon too. “I know better than any of you fellows about waste at the Pentagon and about how much fat there is to be cut-because I’ve seen those boys operate for a long time” he told an adviser. He hated grand-standers and “desk pounders”-having once worked for General Douglas MacArthur, the great grand-stander and desk pounder of American military history. He knew them when he saw them and he had no patience for it.
Ironically, Ike hated war. Not the way someone who didn’t know war hates war-out of fear or misunderstanding. He hated it because of his familiarity with it. As president, he avoided small military conflicts because he understood that whether or not a small conflict became a big one was really just a matter of chance. In the new world of nuclear power, our greatest adversary was taking territory and building ballistic missiles, launching polished satellites that flew over America, reflecting the sun’s light down for naked American eyes to see as they passed over head. Peace wasn’t just a goal. It was survival.
In his farewell speech, he warned of our industrial military complex, growing at an unsustainable rate-yet sadly, he understood why. “I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight. Happily, I can say that war has been avoided.” he finished. He suffered the burden of the insurmountable stress of keeping the peace during the first time in the history of mankind when a failure to do so would have resulted in the end of civilization. It took it’s toll. He suffered a heart attack in 1955. And a stroke in 1957. He labored through constant, severe gastrointestinal pain. By the end, when he left office, escorted by a lone secret service car back to his home in Gettysburg, he was a shadow of the man he once was. He had given more to his country than anyone really knew. He was duty bound to hide it-the servant leader and soldier to the end.
Not since George Washington, had a president been demanded into office by the American people the way Ike was. And not since Washington, was a president’s greatest accomplishment navigating the catastrophically delicate waters of global piece the way Ike had. Ike’s resolve to maintain peace was the fulcrum that lifted the world from the edge of destruction. And he knew it.
Today, a day after another terrorist attack has successfully evoked a response from those seeking to fill the office Ike once filled, it’s fair to ask, which of them is worthy of his role. Is it the one that urges us to use religion as a means to identify areas for proactive policing? Is it the one that tells us that we need to wall America off from the outside and torture our enemies to keep us safe. Is it any of them that didn’t serve-not one day collectively-in uniform. When we look back through history at our truly great presidential behavior, it’s fair to be disappointed with our options. Because we’ve lost something in our search for our next leader-the notion of service.
There’s a generation just over the horizon with different values formed by different burdens though. One, like Ike’s, defined by war and conflict-less sensitive to the populous demagoguery common to those not grounded by the selfless principles of service. One that understands that the pursuit of power should be tempered by its purpose to aid our fellow man. One that has seen up close and personal the toll that torture, authoritarianism and reckless hate have on the human soul. Something happens to you when you see it. The way Ike did. The way we did.
This too will pass. And quietly if we’re smart. We’re struggling through the death spasms of a tired time where people who haven’t experienced the problems of today’s world are arguing the principles of a political debate that’s been dead for a generation. But change will come. Until then, heed Ike’s warning. “We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications….The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Wherever this goes, be wary and watchful of where we place our power. If you can’t get it right, it’s best not to get it too wrong.