Reflecting on the tumultuous American political landscape of the late 1960s, an eminent American statesman believed that his country faced a genuine danger from the “extremes of the Far Left and the Far Right.” He believed that the nation could do better by following a pragmatic course “great enough to accommodate all reasonable citizens, from the moderate conservative to the moderate liberal.” These are the people, he reminded readers, “who get things done.”
This appeal to sanity and bipartisanship sounds a lot like something former vice president Joe Biden might have said in the opening weeks of his presidential campaign. But it was penned by Republican former president Dwight Eisenhower in the final article he wrote shortly before his death, published in Reader’s Digest 50 years ago.
Although long forgotten, Ike’s parting shot is worth reconsidering, and not only because his concerns sound so familiar. It’s a reminder that while political centrism has a proud American tradition — one that reflects many of the presidential legacies we most admire, like Ike’s — it has never been an easy sell.
Written over the last weeks of 1968 while the 78-year-old Eisenhower lay ailing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, this essay was an attempt to come to grips with a country he struggled to recognize, rocked by assassinations, riots, student strikes, cultural upheaval and deep fractures.
Eisenhower set out to cobble together an optimistic outlook during this moment of profound political turbulence. The titles of the various drafts, which can be found today in the archives of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan., help illustrate the point. The first cut began as “The Way of Common Sense,” with the penultimate draft titled “The Middle Way Is the Best Way.” Yet the published version evolved into a warning, a better reflection of the divisive times and Eisenhower’s deep concern: “We Must Avoid the Perils of Extremism.”
For Eisenhower, the effort to define and champion a centrist approach — what he called the “Middle Way” — was the work of his political career. It reflected his nonpartisan lineage and Midwestern sensibility and, he argued, followed in the presidential tradition of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, regarded as perhaps America’s two finest presidents. He began to make the case for the idea in the late 1940s, several years before he entered politics, and often returned to the subject as president.
In his twilight, Ike made one final appeal. Expressing his worries about the “emergence of a new extremism in our land,” Eisenhower refused to be pessimistic. “The effect of these voices,” he wrote, “few in number but strong in decibels, is to create the impression that our country no longer heeds the rule of reason and tolerance.”
Eisenhower saw the problem at both ends of the political spectrum. The left “wants to socialize everything,” while the right “wants to turn back the clock a half-century.” He pushed back against the notion that appealing to the center and finding compromise was somehow weak. The Middle Way is not the approach of some “fence sitter,” he argued. “It often takes more courage to occupy the Center than any other position in the political arena, for you are then subject to attack from both flanks.”
Eisenhower observed that every president had to deal with “extremists.” Drawing on his experiences handling Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Eisenhower suggested the “virtue of restraint” in grappling with them. He recalled being “criticized bitterly” for not attacking McCarthy. While “I yearned in every fiber of my being to do precisely what my critics were urging,” he recalled, “I felt for sure this was the wrong tactic … it would have made a hero and a martyr of McCarthy,” throwing fuel on the fire. “Instead of smashing him, it would have enhanced his stature. I was convinced that, through his own excesses, he would destroy himself.”
Eisenhower’s homespun wisdom may seem old-fashioned or even wrongheaded at a political moment when dangerous extremism seems to be growing in appeal. How can one not condemn, for example, the self-proclaimed white supremacists influencing our politics today?
But Eisenhower’s push for moderation is newly relevant in 2019. Once again, the policy debate is whipsawed by absolutists on both sides. Fury and outrage dominate the discourse. And the country is in the grip of another demagogue, who, like McCarthy, rants about enemies within.
Regardless of whether one subscribes to Eisenhower’s advocacy for restraint in taking on extremists, in our moment of polarization, the broader argument for decency, bipartisanship and pragmatic problem-solving holds great appeal. Eisenhower’s approach was hardly the stuff of passion and instant gratification. That’s the point. What’s often needed is steady and thoughtful leadership — the kind of courage from those who get things done.
It may not win the news cycle. Yet other presidents have found success by following this tradition — by steering a middle course between the extremes with a combination of ambition and humility, recognizing that there are rarely perfect answers or absolute wins. They pursue the politics of the possible over the politics of purity.
Perhaps most important, while in the moment their leadership is often criticized as timid and weak, like Eisenhower’s was, their legacy eventually shines. In many cases, their achievements have proved durable precisely because they managed to chart a moderate course that achieved some level of buy-in from a broad swath of Americans.
While many on the left dismiss pragmatism as insufficient to address a society wracked by inequality, bigotry and other worsening and long-standing maladies, Eisenhower offers up a clear reminder that this approach may, in fact, allow for achieving more to address these problems than fiery rhetoric or splashier policy proposals.
In making his final case for the Middle Way, Eisenhower concluded by “hoping with all his heart” that the country would unite and “give this Common-Sense approach a chance.” Of course, few heeded Ike’s advice, and the following few years were defined not by unity, but by even greater domestic unrest and a constitutional crisis. Perhaps Ike sensed what was coming. When he died in March 1969, he was at work on another article, which never published. Its title: “America’s Tarnished Image.”
The Trump era has been nothing if not a reminder that this is often the result when we don’t heed Eisenhower’s wisdom.