Liking Ike 

Observing the birthday of a pragmatic patriot.

This is the lay of Ike.

Here’s to the glory of the great white—awk—

who has been running—er—er—things in recent—ech—

in the United— …

—from “Dream Song 23” by John Berryman (1914-1972)

Sun., Oct. 14, is President Dwight Eisenhower’s birthday. He died in 1969 at my exact age (79), which makes me a bit nervous, as he looked a lot better than I do. Probably all that saluting. I like Ike more today than I did while he was vanquishing the golden-tongued Adlai Stevenson. The more eloquently Stevenson spoke, the more Americans turned against him, 1956 even more of a drubbing than 1952. We prefer leaders who seem ordinary — our two Harvard-educated contenders today have to roll up their sleeves and slang it up a bit. Far from being “one of the boys,” Eisenhower became both Supreme Allied Commander, and then in 1959 Supreme Commander of NATO Military Forces, sounding vaguely Masonic or even Islamic (every chairman in Iran is either “Supreme” or “Grand”).

Although I’d always been mildly Democratic — in college, I associated Republicans with preppies, rich kids who wore white bucks and already knew how to play tennis — I never actually voted for Stevenson. In 1952 I was too young (remember, until 1971 you had to be 21; Ike was the first president to support the change), and in 1956 I was in the Army, stationed in Germany, and had never heard of absentee ballots. As far as I could tell, nobody in our whole company voted.

Although I should perhaps add here that the Great Generation blithely discriminated against blacks, gays and women, which seemed okay with Ike, most of us draftees liked him for a particular reason. He wasn’t a breast-beating America Firster, but a pragmatic patriot; and didn’t send us in to fight the Russians when they invaded Budapest. Our captains and sergeants were ticked off, but we were thankful to Ike for showing restraint, despite being under great pressure to save the Hungarians: Time magazine chose the Hungarian freedom fighters for their “Man of the Year” cover. If the Romney-Ryan ticket had been running the country in 1956, they would’ve shown those Russkies a thing or two: “My atomic bomb is bigger than yours!”

I’d already been influenced by The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s hymn to victimized farmers, but reading The Catcher in the Rye (1951) I felt that Holden Caulfield was weird enough to be a Democrat, and identified with him. (Who didn’t, back then?) Salinger’s novel offended — and still does — people who have a kind of righteous prudishness. A Holden Caulfield-Mitt Romney dialogue is delightful to imagine.

Much as I’m fond of Ike, whose warning about the “military-industrial complex” was on the money, he did some things that had bad reverberations. He chose Richard Nixon to be his vice president, and Nixon later inaugurated the Republican “Southern Strategy,” causing all the “conservative” Democrats (i.e., racists) to desert the Democrats and become Republicans, an arrangement that’s still working today. With a black president, those Southern states are gold coins in the Republicans’ electoral piggy bank.

But at bottom Ike was the kind of Republican who would cooperate, and even compromise, for the good of the country. In fact, in 1947 — fearing that the more right-wing General Douglas Macarthur would get the Republican nomination — President Harry Truman wanted Ike to run as a Democrat, with Truman stepping down to Vice President. That of course never happened, and Truman went on to pull the biggest upset in presidential history by edging New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 election (see the famous photo of Truman waving the DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune.)

What’s clear is that our current Republican Party has lurched so far to the right that today Ike, like Charlie Crist, would be running as a Democrat — and probably win.

… —proving, by his refusal to take Berlin,

he misread even Clauswitz—wide empty grin

that never lost a vote (O Adlai mine).

— from “Dream Song 23” by John Berryman

—Peter Meinke will be reading from his book "The Shape of Poetry" (illustrated by Jeanne) at the Festival of Reading on Oct. 20 at 1:00 p.m.

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