by Jack L. Kennedy
In 1952 a recent Joplin High School graduate enrolled at what is now Pittsburg State University went downtown to check out the environment. He found, at about Fourth and Broadway in Pittsburg, a curious political installation. The front door was labeled "Republican Headquarters". The side door's sign read "Citizens for Eisenhower". Finally, the optimistic student thought, a place where all could enter, where liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat tags would be less important than the fact a good leader, proven in battles of another sort, could bring the nation together and move it forward in a middle of the road approach.
-- The above may only be a parenthetical example, but would this young idealist have been right?
Well, not entirely, Steven Wagner, a Missouri Southern State University associate professor of history, says in his book, Eisenhower Republicanism: Pursuing the Middle Way.
Sounds of the first Eisenhower campaign can still be heard 54 years later. The labels, the partisanship--and issues like agriculture policy, civil rights. social security, defense and education progress--are very much with us. The Middle Way is hard to achieve; Ike tried. But he predicted that no great leaders would follow who shared his spot on the road, where a centrist is constantly in danger of being hit from both sides.
Wagner's book is a tightly-written thread which continues to weave its way though American culture today. Unlike pompous one-sided talk show hosts who are overweight in many ways, the volume is a thin, targeted look at issues and the man. Many, whether they were Republicans or Democrats, would see it as a fair assessment of Eisenhower's attempts to tackle the tough issues of his time through compromise--a philosophy which often seems foreign today.
The general, courted by both the GOP and Democrats because of his popularity, sought a more active role for the federal government in many areas, even the decidedly un-republican expansion of several New Deal programs. Harry Truman offered to endorse Ike for the Democratic nomination to succeed him, but Eisenhower ultimately chose republicanism. He believed he could create lasting change in the way the party and the people approached problems. Wagner believes that the skilled military strategist did not, however, succeed in recruiting enough troops in Congress or elsewhere to create a lasting legacy.
Ike was no weakling, Wagner says, and his approach bore some resemblance to that of another, earlier, unconventional president. But the man could not find, or his party did not want, the right human receptacles to sustain his philosophies.
As the Missouri Southern author put it, "In American political culture those who describe themselves as 'middle of the road' are often portrayed as unwilling to take a stand or lacking in political sophistication. This was not the case with Eisenhower. The 'middle way' was a carefully considered political philosophy similar to Theodore Roosevelt's cautious progressivism." If rational men do not undertake to lead societal change, Roosevelt and Eisenhower reasoned, then the "lunatic fringe" would take over.
Ike was constantly fighting various wings of his party and used a young man named Richard Nixon as his vice president and go-between with the "right-wing" conservative zealots...although his later endorsement of Nixon as a successor was a rather timid one. The guy was just not mature enough, Eisenhower told others.
The Ike record? Rather spotty, Wagner believes. He did send troops in to Little Rock to back up desegregation orders from the courts but was not an outspoken advocate of desegregation in places other than the military or installations over which the federal government had direct control. He supported Little Rock and Brown vs Topeka civil rights moves because he had an obligation to uphold the law, the professor adds, but could have been much more active. Ike believed that social change or education change would be more lasting if it came from within--which history, perhaps, has shown us is a noble goal but unrealistic.
Although he hated Sen. Joseph McCarthy, affectionately known as the Red-under-every-bed allegedly anti-Communist blowhard, Eisenhower did not speak out too loudly; it would give the senator too much attention, he felt.
"I just don't want to get into a pissing match with that skunk," Ike told his brother Milton. He was referring to McCarthy. He also once called the party's right wing "the most ignorant people now living in the United States."
The book does not give us many clues to Eisenhower's persona or how his background as the military mastermind from Kansas fed or conflicted with his ability to achieve his goals or not. He could get angry, at least in private. For instance, as Wagner points out, he was incensed when he thought he had an agreement allowing the Little Rock troops do their job unencumbered after a chat in Washington with Arkansas' segregationist governor Orville Faubus. Then Faubus returned home and did just the opposite.
The Ike many liked was a man of high principle and hopes but was simply not forceful enough at times, Wagner believes. His carefully-researched and balanced book draws on the judgments of others also, including famed historians Theodore White and Stephen Ambrose, and tons of original documents.
Somehow that plain, deceptively quiet, public speaking style, that passion for people and careful compromise, came through to the voters.--but that concept for choosing a leader did not last long. Although Eisenhower didn't establish a lineage for his balanced approach, one should not conclude that aspiring political leaders today should avoid seeking "the middle road."
Title - Eisenhower Republicanism: Pursuing the Middle Way
Author - Steven Wagner, Ph.D.
Publisher - Northern Illinois University Press (cloth/189 pp.)