FRED GREENSTEIN argues convincingly for Dwight Eisenhower as the last president to have successfully managed both functions assigned to a president by the Founding Fathers -- that of chief of state and head of government. Eisenhower's greatest skill as a political leader, he writes in this thought-provoking volume, lay in his persistent ability to seem utterly without political skill. Like Harry Truman, another executive dusted off by revisionists, Ike advertised his leadership style with a deskplate that read Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re, -- "Gently in manner, strong in deed." And Greenstein, who ranks alongside Richard Neustadt, David Burner, and James MacGregor Burns in the select company of presidential theorists, provides plenty of examples of what he chooses to call the "hidden-hand leadership" that made Eisenhower's motto a valid test of self-knowledge.

Whether dealing with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery or Senator Joseph McCarthy, Eisenhower displayed the master's touch at prickly relationships, publicly holding to his declaration against personal attack while privately assessing with bloodless precision his antagonist's moves and motives. Just as he was able to blur the nation's social and political divisions to the fury of Stevensonian eggheads, so Ike could obfuscate the language when a questioner invited controversy. For proof, Greenstein quotes this response to Joseph C. Harsch's query about U.S. willingness to defend Quemoy and Matsu with atomic weapons:

"The only thing I know about war are two things. The most unpredictable factor in war is human nature in its day-to-day manifestation; but the only unchanging factor in war is human nature. And the next thing is that every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred, and in the way it is carried out. So that for a man to predict, particularly if he has the responsibility for making the decision, to predict what he is going to use, how he is going to do it, would I think exhibit his ignorance of war, that is what I believe. So I think you just have to wait, and that is the kind of prayerful decision that may some day face a president."

No wonder Eisenhower reassured an anxious Jim Hagerty about the sensitive Formosa Strait situation with the observation, "If that question comes up, I'll just confuse them." Greenstein manages to clear away much of the confusion that still surrounds our last two-term president. In this book, Eisenhower turns out to have been as adept at pulling strings and stroking subordinates as FDR. His gift for often salty phrasemaking rivaled Harry Truman's. John Foster Dulles, his dour and militantly Protestant secretary of state, struck Eisenhower as "a sort of international prosecuting attorney." LBJ was "a small man... superficial and opportunistic." His own Senate minority leader, Willian Knowland, had no foreign policy "except to develop high blood pressure whenever he mentions the words Red China."

Critics might rail at "government by committee," writes Greenstein, but a few more committees might have prevented the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Those who attacked Eisenhower for being insufficiently associated in the public view with a specific program made light of his accomplishments (including peace and prosperity) and overlooked entirely the political wisdom of having lightning rods like Sherman Adams, Ezra Taft Benson and Dulles to attract criticism away from the Oval Office. Most of all, they understimated Ike's gift for wide-eyed duplicity. "I am no politician," Eisenhower characteristically announced to his first cabinet meeting, before disproving the claim by circumventing the GOP advocates of a new Hoover Commission to prune waste in the executive structure. There would be such a commission, Ike decided, graced by its two most forceful proponents. But it would be rendered impotent. Ultimately, Hoover II was given an impossibly controversial agenda to work through, and its final report was delayed so the president's own task force could rush a series of more modest reorganization plans to Congress.

Hidden-hand leadership was never more effective, Greenstein suggests, than in the cobra-and-mongoose duel between Eisenhower and Senator McCarthy. Shying away from a direct confrontation (which would provoke a strong negative reaction, what Ike called in his diary, "an expression of the underdog complex"), the president played the role of administrative puppeteer, ignoring McCarthy in public while coaching subordinates in how to counter the senator's bombshells. Cutting the ground out from McCarthy by unveiling his own security-clearance program, playing his war-hero image to the hilt and retraining congressional Republicans made reflexively hostile by 20 years of feuding with the White House, Eisenhower watched cagily for the junior senator from Wisconsin to overstep the bounds of political civility. When McCarthy staffers caused an uproar with their crusade to purge U.S. libraries overseas of suspicious books, Ike achieved outspokenness and non-partisanship simultaneously.

"Don't join the bookburners," he told a Dartmouth commencement audience. "Don't think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend your ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship."

When congressmen demanded testimony from presidential subordinates, Eisenhower forced them to back down. He deprived McCarthy of the right to call hearings on his own authority, praised Vermont's Senator Ralph Flanders after Flanders introduced a motion of censure, and gradually succeeded in isolating his senatorial nemesis. In the end, McCarthy self-destructed -- just as the president predicted.

Hidden-hand leadership could backfire. Eisenhower failed in dislodging Nixon from the 1956 ticket, and Sherman Adams had to be pried loose from office two years later with a crowbar. In both cases, third-person intervention, no matter how skillful, could not take the place of direct presidential involvement. Some functions even Ike couldn't delegate. And it's apparent that what worked for him in the '50s is not easily transferable to his successors. Ronald Reagan is also criticized for over-reliance on staff and neglect of the details Jimmy Carter relished. But Reagan's leadership is deliberately confrontational. To move the country, the Great Communicator relies on his own instincts for drama and emotional persuasion. Progress is achieved, but so is polarization.

In fact, hidden-hand leadership is as old as Machiavelli, despite Greenstein's compelling case for Ike. But strangely and sadly for a book at least in part about language and its misuses, Greenstein muddies the waters of an otherwise trenchant analysis with mushy verbiage that only a political scientist could love. Despite frequent glimpses of an Eisenhower we have never known, the author persists in proving his hypothesis, not in illuminating his subject. It's like hiding the Sphinx behind scaffolding.

Still, what remains visible is interesting enough to make his book a significant contribution to our understanding of the democratic monarchy we call the most powerful office in the world. Especially in our age of manufactured drama and media-made crises, Greenstein's skepticism and Eisenhower's realism are refreshing.

"The reason I like you so much," Winston Churchill once remarked to the Supreme Allied Commander, "is because you ain't no glory-hopper." History, it seems, may be equally generous in its assessment.