By Geoffrey Perret

Random House. 685 pp. $35

Reviewed by Michael Beschloss

From 1942, when he went to London and the European theater in World War II until 1961, when he left the presidency, Dwight Eisenhower was at the pinnacle of world leadership. He won the war in Europe and then preserved the peace for two terms as president.

But Ike has had a curious progress as historical figure. From the moment he left the White House until long after his death in 1969, many Americans regarded him as (in the words of his grandson David) "a simple country bumpkin and a sweet old General." Today, when asked about Eisenhower, most young Americans probably draw a blank -- especially compared with modern presidential folk heroes like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. The new surge of interest in World War II embodied in "Saving Private Ryan" has done a lot for the Q-ratings of the GIs but not much for the commander who led them.

Some of this is owed to what has been written about Eisenhower. During the first two decades after his presidency came books, such as the journalist Peter Lyon's one-volume biography (1974), that showed Ike as a sleepy board chairman as both general and president, whose good works seemed to come more out of dumb luck than forceful leadership.

In 1982 came The Hidden-Hand Presidency, by the Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein, which argued that behind his grandfatherly facade, President Eisenhower had elements of Machiavelli, greasing the skids under Joseph McCarthy and manipulating the bureaucracy without letting people on to what he was doing. Then in 1983 and 1984, the University of New Orleans historian Stephen Ambrose issued his groundbreaking two-volume life, which began when Ambrose had interviewed Ike in the 1960s while working as an editor of the Eisenhower papers at Johns Hopkins. Still, compared to his own later books (D-Day, Undaunted Courage), Ambrose's biography never received the wide audience it deserved.

Among historians, Eisenhower's life, character and career (especially his presidency) are increasingly admired. But on the public exchange, his stock is badly undervalued. He is increasingly unknown to the American people.

Despite the excellence of the Ambrose biography (which is now available in a condensed, single-volume softcover edition), an opening exists for a new one-volume life of Eisenhower with the freshness, impeccable scholarship, use of newly opened sources and popular appeal to give him his deserved place in the American memory. Alas, Geoffrey Perret's biography falls considerably short of that ideal.

The book has its strengths. Perret has a breezy manner of storytelling, on better display in his previous biographies of Generals Grant and MacArthur, that will draw in those readers unfamiliar with the essentials of Eisenhower's Kansas boyhood, the West Point education, the long wait in the peacetime interwar Army, the apprenticeship under MacArthur. The author's background of writing on other military subjects has equipped him to provide a smooth and knowing, if conventional, narration of Eisenhower's wartime commandership in Europe.

This approach does not hugely detract from Perret's retelling of the oft-told story of Eisenhower as general. But its defects become more glaring when Perret moves on to Ike's presidency, about which an historical consensus is nowhere close to having been formed. Here the author had the opportunity to look hard for new documents and other fresh sources and bring us new interpretation and analysis.

But that does not seem to have been Perret's priority. Rich new sources opened by the Eisenhower Library during the 15 years since Ambrose wrote his biography are scarcely mined, or are ignored. One example is the detailed diaries of Eisenhower's doctor, Howard Snyder, which show Ike's day-to-day, behind-the-scenes reactions to personal and public events, revealing how much more affected the president was by his coronary, ileitis and stroke than people knew at the time.

Nor does Perret seem to have made any serious effort to talk to the dozens of people still alive who knew, worked with and covered President Eisenhower. Perret refers in his acknowledgments only to conversations with Eisenhower's son John, Andrew Goodpaster, Ike's staff secretary, and Henry Roemer McPhee, another staff aide.

Perret seems unaware of other information essential to understand Eisenhower's presidency. For instance, in describing Sherman Adams, the chief aide whom Eisenhower ousted for malfeasance in 1958, the author merely repeats the charges publicized at the time that Adams took favors such as hotel rooms, a vicuna coat and a rug from a businessman, Bernard Goldfine.

Unmentioned is the later evidence now available from other sources that Adams also took more than $150,000 from Goldfine (for which he was later almost prosecuted by Robert Kennedy's Justice Department). If revealed in 1958, the possibility that the president's top aide took that kind of money from a friend for whom he did favors could have escalated into a major scandal that could have damaged Eisenhower's presidency.

Perhaps it is the author's seeming lack of interest in pushing hard for new information and conclusions that makes the overstraining style more annoying in the latter stages of the book. A chapter on Eisenhower as Cold War leader in the late 1950s, for example, begins, "Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was almost desperate to beat the Americanskis at something. Anything." And: "Then, like the other shoe dropping with an almighty thump! a Rockefeller Brothers Fund report on national security was published in January 1958." When Eisenhower asks a science adviser why American ICBMs are so small, the author is singularly reminded of "a man embarrassed by the size of his penis."

The book is also peppered with little errors. For example, Perret writes that when Eisenhower became president, the FBI informed him that a particular columnist had "arranged a mariage blanc in order to camouflage his homosexuality." In fact, the columnist in question did not marry until almost a decade later. Eisenhower's country club was not "El Mirador" but "Eldorado." His early biographer was not "Kennett" Davis but Kenneth Davis. John Foster Dulles did not live in Georgetown.

Perret cites the 1974 edition of Khrushchev's memoirs published by Strobe Talbott (misspelled in Perret's notes as "Talbot") for a quote by Mao Tse-tung supposedly telling Khrushchev that after a thermonuclear war "we'll get people [expletive] so they produce more babies than ever before." But Talbott's volume offers a less spicy version. It merely has Mao saying "we'll get to work producing more babies than ever before."

One of the most basic reasons for anyone to write a life of Eisenhower at this point is to give us a new and persuasive way of understanding his generalship and presidency. In a long book, the only stab made by the author at the latter is to reprint a pedestrian list of White House accomplishments that Eisenhower himself included in a 1966 letter to a friend ("Statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. . . . Reorganization of the Defense Department. . . Defense Education Bill. . . ").

The opening for a new one-volume life of Eisenhower remains for an author who will scour the archives for new sources, devour those that exist, track down those who were in Eisenhower's entourage (they are dwindling fast) and push himself or herself hard to bring us new insights and conclusions. It would be unfortunate if the publication of this book caused some other publisher and historian to conclude that that opportunity has been exhausted.

Michael Beschloss is the author, most recently, of "Taking Charge," the first volume of a trilogy on the Lyndon Johnson tapes, and is also working on a history of the Abraham Lincoln assassination.