The younger staff members gathered for lunch in the White House conference room on a Friday in October, 1954, to listen to a white-haired guest. "Why should anyone have his writing done for him?" the speaker asked.
One of those young Eisenhower staff members was William Bragg Ewald Jr., who remembers that question was asked by poet Robert Frost. Ewald was a speech-writer for the president.
Last night, at the Sulgrave Club, Ewald celebrated the publication of his new book, "Eisenhower the President -- Crucial Days: 1951-1960." Among the guests were several of Ewald's sources -- Bryce Harlow, the politically savvy White House deputy chief under Ike and Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, who served with Eisenhower in Europe and later was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
When asked why he had not written his own book, Harlow replied, "I offered my book to six people and they offered me $2 million not to write it."
As for the timing of Ewald's book, the author credits its publication at a time another Republican president has taken over the White House as a happy coincidence.
"I've been working on the book for a long time," he explained. "I feel that I have new information about the kind of person that Ike was and how he conducted government."
In covering the eight years of the Eisenhower presidency, Ewald has brought together his personal recollections of the period, interviews with colleagues and information gathered during four years of research with the president on Ike's two-volume memoir," "Mandate for Change" and "Waging Peace."
In his book, he writes of 17 crucial moments in the 1950s -- really not crises in the sense of the Nixon six. But they do reveal clues. There is, for instance, the anecdote of Ike's meeting with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a room of the Pere Marquette Hotel in Peoria, Ill. Speech-writer Kevin McCann, who died last Saturday, told Ewald that he couldn't help overhearing outside the door: "I never heard the general so cold-bloodedly skin a man. The air turned blue . . ."
In the end, Ewald argues that the '50s were, in fact a "tinderbox decade." That they now appear uneventful years, he feels, is to Eisenhower's credit. "There was not a lack of events," Ewald emphasized. "It was rather a lack of explosive events in the streets, ruinous inflation and war. The events went on in the Oval Office -- hot temper, decision, churning, plenty of drama that existed behind closed doors.
The guests at the publication party last night -- a bipartisan affair -- had their own stories to tell. One even remembered that lunch attended by Robert Frost years ago. He was retired Navy Capt. Edward Beach, the submariner-author who was the White House naval aide under Eisenhower. Beach, author of "Run Silent, Run Deep," remembered another question asked by the poet: "What is the saddest word in the world?" Beach, now administrative assistant to Jeremiah Denton, the new Republican senator from Alabama, had suggested: "Forlorn."
In Ewald's book, he recalls Frost's answer: "Betrayal."