Mamie Eisenhower was worth listening to. The trouble was that, when Ike was alive, she was careful not to talk publicly too often and, after he died, few of us tried to find out what she had to say. Her health was often frail, but she had strong will and had though life through.
I spent a day with her in the Bicentennial summer when she made a rare public appearance by riding on the Freedom Train from Gettysburg to York, Pa. I had never met her, and my recollections were that she was Ike's smiling, attractive partner, bland of remark, the proper Republican woman. I was to learn something.
The Freedom Train crawled across the countryside, so Mamie had time to see the cluster of people in fields and in small towns. They waved and their mouths formed the word "Mamie," causing her to beam.
"It makes your heart warm," she said. "I am fortunate, because most widows are forgotten."
Ike was her life, and everybody asked about their years together. "When people remark how close I was to him, well, or course we were close," she said. "But you never really know a person, you only understand them. Nobody knows anybody else's inner thoughts."
She saw Ike as the head of the house, as the man who deserved to come home to her and dinner and a pleasant evening with no heavy discussion of the military or the presidency or politics. She had a keen sense of divided responsibilities; his was work and hers was home and hearth.
When he asked, "What should I do about this situation?" she usually turned the question away. And if he ventured toward her territory, he was in trouble. When Ike sent a memo to a White House staffer about menus, Mamie countermanded the order.
She believed in the old values. For instance, children should be given leeway to find themselves, but not before age 20. "There is too much leniency with children today," she said firmly, "and too much freedom in their dress, especially in church." She was glad that her son John phoned her every week, but she wasn't sure that most mothers got such calls. And she wondered about the feminists. "I don't know about this Ms. business," Mamie told me. "God made you to have children. I fell sorry for people who don't."
She didn't like the way the country was going, either. "We emphasize money too much," she said. "There is no aristocracy in America, only people who are money crazy. We've lost the art of doing a good job. There's no competition these days. Clerks don't want to wait on you.
"I was taught to pay for everything," she said. Nowadays people think about what they can get out of paying for. I was taught to save money and then spend it. "I'm still wearing the same clothes I had when we were in the White House. I took care of them."
Though she defended the old-fashioned way, Mamie said she wouldn't give advice to the new generation. "What worked for Ike and me might not work today," she said.
Mamie never claimed she was Ike's quiet strenght, but his friends knew she was. Her speech was Midwest-accented, and she seemed to epitomize sweet domesticity. But Mamie came from a sophisticated, wealthy family and knew the way of the world. Farmer boy Eisenhower did not.
"It would have been Colonel Dwight David Eisenhower if it weren't for Mamie," Kevin McCann, Eisenhower's speechwriter, once told me. "In their early years, Mamie was a broadening influence." $ in her declining years, she was increasingly alone. Stg. John and Dolores Moaney, the black couple who worked for Ike and Mamie for many year, retired. She tried to cook her own meals and wound up mostly with TV dinners. She saw fewer visitors. Friends persuaded her to take an apartment in Washington, but she only spent a few weeks in it each winter. Out of respect for Ike, she felt a duty to stay at the farm.
"I miss him terribly," she said. "I come down to the porch and remember how he would paint and I would sit and play solitaire. We didn't say a word, but we were together. It was companionship. I had to steel myself to being lonely many times when he was gone -- he was away three years once [World War II]. But it was so hard to steel myself when he was really gone." Nowadays, wives of public mean like Mamie seem out of fashion. But i their time there was no more popular couple than the Eisenhowers. Tom Stephens, Eisenhower's White House appointments secretary, once told me why. "Ike and Mamie," he said. "They're like people you know."