"Let us talk of the Emperor," Victor Hugo used to say of Napoleon French holidays. "It will do us good."
In similar vein, during observance of the President's Day, it may do us good to talk of the last occupant of the White House to serve out two terms -- Dwight Eisenhower. For there has emerged a treasure trove of new materials showing that Eisenhower governed by art and skill and self-discipline, and not -- as some imagined -- by merely doing nothing.
Delegation of authority, to be sure, was a cardinal practice with Eisenhower not out of laziness or lack of interest, but on principle. Prof. Fred Greenstein of Princeton, who has been working with the private papers, cites a letter written in August 1960 to Henry Luce. "The government of the U.S.," Eisenhower wrote, "has become too big and too complex . . . for one individual to pretend to direct the details of its important and critical programming.
Having delegated authority, Eisenhower was prepared to stand by his advisers. In a fine new book, "Eisenhower the President," his former aide William Bragg Ewald shows that time after time Eisenhower subordinated his own views to those of his associates. He let Attorney General Herbert Brownell commit him into naming Earl Warren Chief Justice. He let Interior Secretary Fred Seaton jolly him into backing statehood for Alaska. "Dwight D. Eisenhower, more than any President in recent history," Ewald writes, "was an organization man."
When top advisers clashed, Eisenhower could let the fight drag on. Witness the waiting game played before finally going to the mat when Sen. Joseph McCarthy on the issue of communist influence in the Army. But he could also settle matters at once. Thus in 1955 he came down against Treasury Secretary George Humphrey and the tax cut on the theory, advanced by Arthu Burns of the Council of Economic Advisers, that it would be inflationary.
In holding himself above his advisers, Eisenhower was at great pains to avoid being mired by the circumstances that play on most leaders. He scrupulously avoided ideological commitment. He excoriated his brother Edgar for his right-wing learnings and once said of Lincoln: "He was the greatest compromiser and the most astute master of expediency we have ever known.
His language was designed to keep options open. Ewald shows that tortured syntax was often used to avoid commitments on "detail". The comment he made on the famous Checkers speech Richard Nixon gave during the 1952 campaign was eloquent in its (almost cynical) detachment. "Your presentation," Eisenhower said, "was magnificent."
When dirty work had to be done, Eisenhower hung back and let others take the lead. He had Meade Alcorn, the Republican Party chairman, inform Sherman Adams, the top White House aide, that Adams would have to resign because of involvement in the Goldfine scandal. He had former party chairman Leonard Hall sound out Nixon on the possibility of not running for reelection as vice president in 1956.
Unless feeling himself wounded, Eisenhower avoided going public with personal dislikes. He mistrusted House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson but worked well with them. He thought Franklin Roosevelt "cruel," but never said so publicly.
On matters that counted, Eisenhower followed the developments closely. He knew what was afoot almost minute-by-minute during the counter-coup in which the United States helped to restore the shah of Iran to his throne. He held off by persistent and dogged determination many efforts to suck him into Vietnam. He understood the national aversion to war, and alwys held himself out as a man of peace. His attitude on war was summed up in his maxim: ""When you appeal to force, there's one thing you must never do -- lose."
To be sure, Eisenhower had faults as a president -- important faults. He was not sensitive on many social issues, especially civil rights. He failed to reshape the Republican Party. He did not succeed in picking any of the leaders he most respected as Republican nominee in 1960.
Still, he ruled by method, not by accident. "Eisenhower's use of arm's-length strategies, on missions great and small, trivial and grave," Ewald writes, "forms a persistent pattern in his Presidency."
By means of that strategy, moreover, Eisenhower kept the game going. As Ewald writes: "He was not only Hamlet or Lear, the protagonist in the midst of events. He was also the symbol of moral order at their end -- the Fortinbras or Albany, uncorrupted."