The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. long claimed that American politics moved in cycles. Every few decades, he suggested, the nation witnessed a swing of the pendulum, with power and ideological influence shifting from liberals to conservatives, or from the public interest to the private, and back again. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, many pundits saw the pendulum swinging once again, ushering in a new era of Democratic dominance — the Age of Reagan giving way to the vaunted Age of Obama.
The last two years have upended this story; presidential politics seems more and more unpredictable. When it comes to the writing of presidential history, however, the trends are still easy to call. While in office, presidents rarely escape partisan squabbling and divided public opinion. Give it a few decades, though, and historians are sure to discover hidden greatness in even the most mundane of presidential records.
At first glance, Jim Newton’s “Eisenhower” fits neatly into this cycle of presidential revisionism. “America’s thirty-fourth president was belittled by his critics as the babysitter in chief,” reads the book-jacket copy. “This new look reveals how wrong they were.” Fortunately Newton, editor-at-large of the Los Angeles Times, has written far more than a hagiography.
While he rejects Eisenhower’s reputation as a “weak president,” Newton is frank about his subject’s failings, especially on civil rights. And while he can wax rhapsodic (Eisenhower was “exquisitely prepared” for the presidency, his mother was “a woman of special depth,” Newton remains critical of Eisenhower, both as a man and as a political actor. The result is an engaging if conflicted work of presidential history, with the author torn between putting Eisenhower on a pedestal and tearing him back down.
“Eisenhower” is not a traditional biography; Newton devotes a scant three chapters to the president’s early life and vast military career. What the book offers instead is a detailed look at Eisenhower’s presidential record, from his belated leap into the 1952 campaign through his quiet departure eight years later, weakened by heart attacks and unsure of his legacy. Famous characters abound: George Patton as military inspiration, Richard Nixon as overweening political subordinate. But while the events and figures may be familiar, Newton aims to tell us something new — namely that Eisenhower, long seen as a pleasant fellow fond of golf and bridge, was actually a visionary and commanding White House presence.
Despite his gestures toward Eisenhower as an active leader, Newton is most impressed by what the president did not do: Namely, Eisenhower did not start a nuclear war at a time when such action seemed both thinkable and likely. Eisenhower’s famous leisure activities, Newton argues, were not distractions from presidential duty. Rather, the president sought to assure the public that ordinary life could go on amidst Cold War realities — and if he had to play a lot of golf and bridge to prove it, well, so be it.
Newton identifies Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech, with its fulminations against a growing military-industrial complex, as the high point of the president’s political career. Eisenhower comes off less well in other domestic affairs, where his strategy of adhering to a “Middle Way” often yielded too little too late. He ultimately opposed McCarthyism, for instance, but only after Sen. McCarthy attacked the army, the federal institution closest to Eisenhower’s heart. The president adopted a similarly reluctant approach to civil rights, sending federal troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School only under great pressure and driven by a fear that law and order was on the verge of total collapse. Newton argues that Eisenhower by tradition and temperament was a moderate segregationist, happy enough to accept Jim Crow and convinced that the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision was one of the great embarrassments of his presidency.
Eisenhower amassed a troubling record as well on covert action, arguably his most innovative strategy for fighting the Cold War. Between 1953 and ’59, the CIA secretly helped to orchestrate violent coups in Iran, Guatemala and the Congo, forever changing both global politics and the workings of American democracy. It is unclear how deeply Eisenhower was involved in planning these missions. Newton shows nonetheless that the president heartily approved of such activity, both as a military man who enjoyed a logistical challenge and as a political leader eager to avoid direct nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Ultimately — and predictably — Newton comes down on Eisenhower’s side, lavishing praise on the president for his ability to “fight relentlessly for peace, and construct an astonishing period of prosperity, stability, and freedom.” Still, no reader will come away from the book thinking that the 1950s were all about bridge, golf and babysitting. Newton’s Eisenhower is a man who struggled to rise to his historical moment, even if, like so many presidents before and since, he sometimes failed to do so.
The White House Years
By Jim Newton
Doubleday. 451 pp. $29.95