Nice people. Regular folks. Just like you and me.
A visit to their homestead in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, might give you that impression. It's an illusion, of course.
He was President of the United States. And she was First Lady.
The Eisenhower Farm, where Dwight David and Mamie Doud lived out their final years, leads you to forget all that.
The place fairly reeks of American wholesomeness. Scattered about the house are Ike's oil paintings, which the General rendered painstakingly from photographs. Nailed to the front door are not one, but two of those "bless-this-house" brass plaques, which Mamie picked up at a local hardware store: "Bless these walls so firm and stout,/Keeping want and trouble out."
"She sure did like her pink," a woman said loudly as she fingered some of Mamie's silken draperies. The comment was in keeping with the air of a house-hunting expedition that pervades the scene.
In the formal parlor, the one room that's even slightly presidential, the rangers say vaguely that, well, after all, Ike and Mamie didn't like it much themselves, they used it only four times, except when Mamie played the piano. (Sometimes this isn't enough: Told that the Eisenhower heirs kept for their own use an ornate Persian rug, a gift to Ike from the shah, a lean old gentleman groused, "Was he given it while he was president? Then we ought to make 'em give it back.")
The rangers are quicker still to point out that homely little kitchen down the back stairs ("You're really in for a surprise now"), a kitchen with dull-green linoleum and scant counter space, much of it occupied by a 1950s-vintage toaster, a box of Nabisco crackers and a cook book opened to "crisp fried" chicken.
The renovated neo-Georgian home, the cattle barn and the putting green, amid 500 acres of corn neighboring the battlefield of Gettysburg, compose the Eisenhower National Historic Site, a tourist attraction that opened to great fanfare in mid-June. The National Park Service, which staffs the site with knowledgeable rangers and dispenses brochures, says that since then, almost 100,000 visitors have taken the bus ride from the tour center in downtown Gettysburg through the unmarked gate of the Eisenhower grounds.
Maybe it's just as Bob Hope told a dedication crowd the other day in Boone, Iowa, Mamie's birthplace. "Ike and Mamie," Hope said, "were middle Americans to the core. Mamie was the most down-to-earth person I ever met, right out of a Norman Rockwell painting."
But Mamie was not the typical Norman Rockwell subject. She grew up in a house full of servants, and for all her simple charm -- that smile, those bangs -- held her own nicely in the world of her husband. "It would have been Colonel Dwight David Eisenhower if it weren't for Mamie," Kevin McCann, one of Ike's speechwriters, once observed. "In their early years, Mamie was a broadening influence."
Ike was a Kansas farm boy, all right, but his wasn't the typical Kansas farm family. His parents, David Jacob and Ida Stover, raised seven sons, one of whom, Milton, became president of Johns Hopkins University; another of whom, Edgar, ended up a rich banker in Washington state. So it was hardly startling that Ike, born into this family of over-achievers, became a five-star general, president of Columbia University and commander-in-chief.
There is nary a clue to any of this at the Eisenhower farm.
"If Ike was here now," said visitor Ronald Litman, a 62-year-old truckdrive from Canton, Ohio, who served under the general in North Africa and Sicily, "I bet he'd say, 'Come on in."
The Eisenhowers bought the farm for $44,000 in 1950, rebuilt the main house, but didn't actually live there until Ike ended his second White House term in 1961.After Ike's death in March 1969, Mamie lived in the house alone until her own death, at 82, last November. The Eisenhowers already had deeded the property to the government.