GETTYSBURG, PA., OCT. 13 -- George Bush, the 41st president, now facing a season of political discontent, could take comfort from the current standing of a Republican predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president, now in a season of historical ascendancy.
Shortly after Eisenhower left office nearly 30 years ago and retired to his farm adjoining the great Civil War battlefield here, a national poll of leading academic historians rated him close to the bottom of all presidents. By the early 1980s, Eisenhower had climbed to ninth place in a similar poll of historians.
Today, as a gathering of scholars concluded a four-day Eisenhower Centennial Symposium here, there seemed widespread agreement that Eisenhower's standing as an American leader has risen into a rarified zone. "He was the best president of the second half of the 20th century," Prof. Stephen E. Ambrose, historian and Eisenhower scholar, said during a final plenary session.
Bush also could draw lessons from the observations of other prominent scholars on how Eisenhower dealt successfully with leaders of a Democratic-controlled Congress, produced balanced budgets and even a surplus, dispatched troops to the Middle East and swiftly got them out, resolved international crises without loss of American lives and bequeathed a legacy of peace and prosperity unrivaled since his presidency ended.
The occasion for this reexamination of the Eisenhower legacy and leadership style is the 100th anniversary of the World War II general's birth Sunday. The event drew major academic figures as well as key members of his administration -- and such figures as former president Gerald R. Ford and entertainer Bob Hope -- to Gettysburg College, where Eisenhower had maintained an office and wrote his memoirs. But what elevated this gathering into something more than another memorial observance was the linkage of the successful Eisenhower political period with today's chaotic political scenes in Washington.
From the first panel discussion here Wednesday night to the final one today, questions and comments about contemporary events were raised. How would Ike have handled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, or terrorism? How would he have dealt with the budget deficit crisis? How would he have dealt with deep divisions in his Republican Party?
There were no certain answers to the speculative inquiries, but a striking uniformity emerged that Eisenhower's approach would have been different -- and, either stated explicitly or implied, better.
"He would never have allowed himself to get into the budget mess of today," said Elmer Staats, who served as a key adviser to Eisenhower and as operations officer for the National Security Council.
Staats added, bitingly, in remarks that others echoed: "I don't think that Eisenhower would have bought supply-side economic theories that have tripled the national debt in eight years."
Raymond Saulnier, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1956 to 1960 during Eisenhower's second term, expressed another common theme about the Eisenhower leadership method -- that of public candor. "What would he do? I think probably the first thing he would do would be to talk frankly to the American people about what they face. . . . Let's have the facts, he would say, and lay them out. I think he would have talked to the people as they haven't been talked to for quite a while."
Other aspects of Eisenhower's presidency drew favorable attention. The Eisenhower that emerged was a more complex, subtle and canny political figure than he had been depicted during his presidency. He was also, it was noted several times, a leader capable of taking a long view. He had "vision."
As evidence, one symposium today was devoted to reexamining the themes of Eisenhower's famous Farewell Address. The first theme, warning of the dangers of the rise of "the military-industrial complex," is familiar. The others are far less so, yet at least equally pertinent. He warned, for example, about the domination of scholarship and thought by the power of money and government control of research. In another passage, he sounded a theme that is being heard today about the excesses of the 1980s: "We -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow."
At the same time, this conference did not confer sainthood on Eisenhower. He was described, bluntly, by Ambrose as "a sexist" and, while not a racist, someone who failed to take a moral stand against segregation. Nor did the scholars absent Eisenhower from sharp criticism for his failure to speak out against the witch-hunting tactics of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).
One well-known scholar, Princeton's Fred I. Greenstein, said that Eisenhower's greatest weakness as president was his failure to employ "the bully pulpit" of the presidency as a method of leading the people. Others here also criticized Eisenhower for not being, in the contemporary vernacular, an effective "communicator."
Nevertheless, the Eisenhower presented here was notably different from the Eisenhower whom intellectuals and academics widely viewed as a bumbling father-figure who had presided benignly over the problem-free America of the 1950s. In the popular caricature of the time, Ike was the befuddled old man of American politics, a leader of uncertain syntax and rambling news conference replies who spent much of his time away from the Oval Office golfing. Americans turned to younger politicians to "get the country moving again." Youthful vigor was celebrated as a national virtue in contrast to leadership from an aging hero from World War II.
But for Eisenhower, as for others, time and events have the power to revise past judgments and refurbish reputations.