Nobody would have been angrier than Dwight D. Eisenhower at the sorry spectacle in Washington these last few days. The soldier-statesman, who was born 100 years ago this Sunday, despised disorder and condemned partisan excesses.
But without demeaning the man who led the Allied armies to victory in Africa and Europe in World War II and guided the nation through eight years of peace and prosperity as president in the 1950s, it must be said that the chaos of divided government is part of his legacy, too.
This "great and good man," as Stephen E. Ambrose calls him in his newly published one-volume biography, is meagerly memorialized in the capital. A small bust perches awkwardly above the entrance to the Eisenhower Theater, inside the imposing John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, totally overshadowed by the heroic Kennedy head that dominates the promenade.
But Eisenhower's monuments are elsewhere, even if they do not bear his name. The St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened a fourth coast and brought the world's trade to the Middle West, is part of his legacy. So is the Interstate Highway System, the greatest public-works investment in the last 50 years.
Along with the GI Bill, which educated and housed Eisenhower's fellow veterans, the Interstate System has proved to be by far the most important economic-development strategy of the federal government.
Beyond these domestic landmarks, Eisenhower ended the war in Korea, rejected American involvement in Vietnam and strengthened the NATO alliance in the continuing Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. At the same time, he kept the lid on Pentagon spending, pitting his personal prestige and hard-earned experience against the influence of what he called "the military-industrial complex."
All this makes it easy to understand why Eisenhower was the most popular American of his era and why his contributions are increasingly praised by historians of the 20th century.
But it also is true that Eisenhower contributed, albeit unwittingly, to the political problem that has eroded the credibility and capacity of American government in the three decades since he left the White House: the pattern of divided government.
The figures are striking. In the 40 years before Eisenhower's first election in 1952, the voters gave the president supportive majorities of his own party in both the House and Senate for all but six years. Since then, the scorecard reads 24 years of divided government and only 14 years of one-party control.
Many factors have contributed to that remarkable and devastating reversal of form. The decline of party organizations, the rise of television and the growing independence of voters all have played a part. But it was Eisenhower who gave a moral sanction to this rampant ticket-splitting, who planted and nurtured the notion that the president was somehow separate from the rest of the political-governmental system.
He came into politics on a different plane, as the liberator of Europe, the man who had defeated Hitler's armies. His prestige was so high -- and his partisanship so well cloaked -- that Democrats hoped to recruit him as their presidential nominee. He was a national figure, not a party leader.
In 1952, his popularity, public opposition to the Korean War and weariness with 20 years of Democratic rule gave Republicans control of the White House and Congress. But two years later, the Democrats regained their majorities in the House and Senate -- and the fateful era of divided government began.
At first, it did not seem very damaging. Eisenhower had easy rapport with the Texans who led the Democrats in Congress -- House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. He had started his military service in Texas and was stationed there on Pearl Harbor Day. Johnson and Rayburn supported him fully on foreign policy and had few fundamental differences with his domestic priorities.
Eisenhower had a modest domestic agenda, and as Harvard's Mark A. Peterson points out in his newly published book, "Legislating Together," he operated largely by forging agreements with the congressional leaders and then mobilizing public opinion behind his plans. "When President Eisenhower took to television or radio in support of his limited number of initiatives, his success was overwhelming," Peterson writes.
No such success has been achieved by the more partisan presidents -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and now George Bush -- who have attempted to function in a divided government since Eisenhower's time. Bush shares more values with Eisenhower than with any of his other predecessors, but the ravages of 40 years of mostly divided government make it impossible for him to operate the way Eisenhower did.
In any other democracy, the repudiation of legislative and executive leadership we saw in the budget fiasco would have forced a new election, where the people would have been asked to decide which party should govern. Instead, we will muddle along as best we can with the divided government that is the worst part of Eisenhower's great legacy.