I didn't always like Ike. In 1960, at the age of 14, I was enthralled by John Kennedy. Not only was he more charming, idealistic and energetic than Richard Nixon, but he promised a clear break from the plodding Eisenhower. Somewhere in the 1960s (or was it the early 1970s?), I got wisdom. I realized that Dwight Eisenhower had two qualities vital in a president: a sense of self-restraint and a sense of what's important.

As an Eisenhower fan, I've been struck by how favorable the reviews have been on his 100th birthday. For years, he was dismissed as a mediocrity who played too much golf and provided no leadership. In 1962 a poll of historians on presidential greatness ranked Ike 22 out of 33, between Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur. Now, Ike is celebrated as a successful president and something of a visionary, who foresaw the end of the Cold War. It's an odd resurrection that exaggerates his clairvoyance and overlooks the real causes of his competence.

His rehabilitation has occurred partly by default. No president since has seemed to handle the office so well. Kennedy and Gerald Ford are hard to judge, because they served so briefly. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter all departed in disgrace. Ronald Reagan, though popular, is widely dismissed -- somewhat like Eisenhower 30 years ago -- by commentators as a lucky pea-brain. Eisenhower's reputation has not risen so much as the standard of comparison has fallen. In the 1960s, it was Franklin Roosevelt; now, Ike's competitors are not so tall.

The Eisenhower revival also reflects the discovery that he was craftier and more complex than he seemed. When historians studied his archives, they found that he controlled his aides -- not the other way around -- and that his public ambiguity was often calculated. "Don't worry, Jim," he once told press secretary James Hagerty, who fretted about how a sensitive issue would be handled at a press conference. "I'll just confuse them."

But all these refinements merely discredit Eisenhower's bungler image. His success involved far more. His greatest feat was to heal. You need to recall the climate of the times. The Americans of the 1950s had experienced two hateful political debates: the first over the New Deal, the second over communism. By the late 1930s, President Roosevelt was exploiting class tensions by denouncing the well-to-do. In the late 1940s, Republicans were denouncing Democrats as communist dupes. At its worst, this became McCarthyism.

Eisenhower calmed these passions. This was not preordained. He might have sought (as many Republicans wanted) to overturn New Deal programs. As late as 1964, Barry Goldwater, the GOP presidential nominee, wondered publicly about the value of Social Security. Any effort to undo the New Deal would have failed, but in the process would have been hugely divisive. Ike didn't try. He might also have embraced strident anti-communism. Instead, he carefully constructed a bipartisan foreign policy and generally avoided shrill political rhetoric. Eisenhower's dull style was a deliberate part of his politics. He strove to soothe.

His second big achievement was maintaining a sound economy. With hindsight, the economic statistics of his years seem stunning. Unemployment averaged 4.8 percent and inflation 1.4 percent. Median household incomes (adjusted for inflation) rose 22 percent. Three of Eisenhower's eight budgets ran surpluses, and his deficits were small. Of course, not all of this was his doing. The engines of the early postwar economy were the new technologies and pent-up demand left by the war and Depression. But Eisenhower's policies allowed the engines to perform.

What's absent from Eisenhower's legacy is a long list of new federal programs, though he did create a few big ones: the Interstate Highway System (1956) and the National Defense Education Act (1958) -- which provided aid for science education. "Eisenhower had . . . {a} deep aversion to the expansion of the state," writes historian Alan Brinkley in The Wilson Quarterly. "His mission, he believed, was to restrain and limit government, not to force it to fulfill any great missions or obligations."

Eisenhower is understandably criticized for not being bolder in attacking obvious social injustices such as racial segregation. What's forgotten is that even his successors, Kennedy and Johnson, didn't act until civil rights demonstrations compelled them to act. The more spontaneous activism of Kennedy and Johnson involved creating new programs and trying to raise the economy's growth through "economic management." These undertakings often created as many problems as they solved.

Government needs disciplines that are both effective and understandable to the public. Eisenhower adhered to certain common-sense convictions that provided these. Balance the budget. Control inflation. Create a climate in which private enterprise can generate growth. Following these convictions wasn't easy. To check inflation, Eisenhower endured three recessions (the slumps of 1953-54 and 1960-61 were mild, that of 1957-58 severe). Controlling the budget meant resisting constant demands from his party for tax cuts and from the Democrats for spending increases. But Ike resisted because he had a "consoling faith in 'the long view,' " as one-time aide Emmet John Hughes later wrote.

It has been lost. In the 1960s, economists who thought themselves smarter and more sophisticated than Eisenhower convinced politicians and the public that his common sense was old-fashioned. So the taboos against budget deficits and inflation were broken in the name of promoting higher economic growth. And once broken, they have been hard to recreate. Politicians had been given respectable rationales for doing popular things. Self-restraint diminished.

Had we retained Eisenhower's caution, we would have spared ourselves much grief. Double-digit inflation (and the harsh recessions required to cure it) would never have occurred. The inevitable expansion of government would have been slower and more careful. Huge budget deficits would have been avoided. The reason I like Ike is that to this day we are paying the penalty for abandoning his common-sense approach.