The snow had fallen in massive quantities the night before and the temperature had plummeted to single digits. And the man who had provided steady and unruffled guidance to the United States of America during a potentially turbulent time, likely found himself watching the weather every bit as much as his sense of duty drove him to keep an eye on the very world itself. He had a trip planned that day—one he had been looking forward to for a while. It was more than an excursion from one place to another; it was a journey from glory to glory.
That ever fascinating periodic juncture involving the peaceful national transfer of power from one American president to another becomes its own unique moment chiseled in storied stone. This was certainly the case on January 20, 1961 as John F. Kennedy took the oath of office and spoke eloquently about demands of the times. As he delivered his memorable address in the frigid air, his words accented by his Boston timbre and wisps of fleeting vapor, his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, likely felt the burdensome power of that great office leave him and attach itself to the new man in charge. Another man sitting nearby and watching, absorbed in his own thoughts, was the outgoing Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, who had lost his race to succeed Eisenhower by a controversial whisper-thin margin.
No one knew it at the time, but within a few years a bridge would connect the Eisenhower and Nixon families, as Ike’s grandson, David, and Nixon’s daughter, Julie, would marry and become a potential power couple tempered by cerebral grace and quiet dignity. And as we watch the already well-formed media circus surrounding the impending nuptials of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, it is not hard to imagine what the courtship and marriage of the grandson of one U.S. President to the daughter of another would mean in our age of 24/7 saturation media-bombing.
David was President Eisenhower’s only grandson, and no doubt the apple of his eye. He even renamed the Maryland Presidential retreat for the boy—Camp David. He has shared a fascinating story with us in a new book called, Going Home To Glory—A Memoir Of Life With Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969, written with Julie Nixon Eisenhower. Just 12 years old when the 34th President of the United States retired to the pastoral confines of his beloved Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm, David Eisenhower was uniquely positioned to observe what it was like to become a former President of the United States.
Though just published, Going Home To Glory was actually written for the most part many years ago. During a recent conversation, David Eisenhower told me that back then, “I took nights out, worked late into the night dictating from memory my recollections of the years 1961-1969.” He said that he “came up with a draft,” only to file it away. Then about a year ago Simon & Schuster expressed interest in publishing it.
David told me that two factors brought the rough draft manuscript forward. First, though he had crafted the prose many years ago—with the voice of a much younger man—he determined to leave that alone. But he also said, “I did not trust myself with substantial revision of the manuscript I had, so Julie entered the picture as an editor. I wrote up inserts, and she and I would discuss whether the inserts should go in. We had to expand the manuscript some, and she took over as principle editor, and I was draftsman. Then I did sort of the final edit, and there you go. It's David Eisenhower with Julie, and she deserves the ‘with’ for sure.”
This is not Eisenhower’s first literary effort to describe his illustrious grandfather. His nearly 1,000-page tome, Eisenhower At War, 1943-45, was published more than two decades ago and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Julie wrote about her mother in a wonderful 2007 book called Pat Nixon—The Untold Story.
With a university professor’s love for research—David is director of the Institute for Public Service at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania—he has written a book that is rich in detail without sacrificing personal warmth. And along the way, we look behind the scenes at the final years of an authentic American hero.
For example, by the time former President Eisenhower was deeply rooted in retirement, he played a vital role in a famous political story, though his hidden hand was not publicly known at the time. Having lost a painfully close election to John F. Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon ran for governor in California in 1962. By all accounts, it was a fiasco. He lost to the incumbent Edmund G. “Pat” Brown—father of the recently elected new governor of that state. His somewhat rambling and uncharacteristically intemperate comments to the press in the wake of his loss, complete with the never-to-be-thrown-way line, “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” seemed to end the former Vice President’s political career. Further nails were hammered into Nixon’s electoral coffin when one of the television networks aired a special within a few days called The Political Obituary Of Richard Nixon.
David Eisenhower told me that he had, “never really talked about 1962 much with Mr. Nixon. People rarely brought it up around him.” The conventional wisdom was that Nixon couldn’t resist politics and thought being governor of California would position him for another run for the presidency. But as Eisenhower researched material for Going Home To Glory, he found himself surprised. “What I had found, looking into the record,” Eisenhower remarked during our conversation, “is Nixon was very, very ambivalent about running in 1962, and Dwight Eisenhower’s advice to run for [the] governorship was probably an important, if not the most important, element in Nixon’s thinking. Eisenhower’s logic was Republicans needed that governorship and Nixon was the kind of guy who could probably defeat an incumbent…so he pushed Nixon, gently, but pushed him.”
Interestingly, Richard Nixon, never blamed his former boss—nor did he ever fully reveal Eisenhower’s behind the scenes role, such was his respect for Eisenhower. It was a respect shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans.
One particularly intriguing part of the book deals with former President Eisenhower’s desire to restore his five-star rank. President Kennedy, who had a complicated relationship with his predecessor (there are many great details in the book about this dynamic), was puzzled at this and considered the request “eccentric.” Eisenhower would be, in effect, declining the title “Mr. President” in favor of “General.”
Going Home To Glory is filled with such insider insight.
Like the time when Ike and Mamie went to see the movie, The Longest Day, the epic about the events of D-Day in June of 1944, produced by Darryl Zanuck (who had offered Mr. Eisenhower a role in the film playing himself). After watching the movie for a few minutes, the General who actually oversaw Operation Overlord, whispered to his wife that he wanted to leave. She said, “Ike, you can’t do that.” “The hell I can’t,” he replied and he got up and walked out. All he would later say was something about “literary license.”
The final portion of Going Home To Glory deals with Mr. Eisenhower’s physical decline and final months living in Ward Eight at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Guests came to pay their respects, including a newly elected President named Nixon. And by this time, the 34th and 37th Presidents are somewhat related—by marriage—as David and Julie had tied the knot in December of 1968. The General had offered his grandson $100 to get his haircut for the occasion. David did visit the barber, but the trim was not short enough to please granddad—so he didn’t get paid.
Many of the visitors making their way to Walter Reed were ministers, including Evangelist Billy Graham, who prayed with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Going Home To Glory describes the moment: “Eisenhower had greeted Graham with a question about heaven and a talk they had had fourteen years earlier at Gettysburg. Emotionally, Graham repeated for Eisenhower what he had said to him before, reminded Eisenhower of God’s promise of salvation, and the ways this promise is revealed in scripture.”
On March 28, 1969, and as the men of the family, including grandson David “formed a line abreast at the foot of Granddad’s bed and came to rigid attention,” the great American died at 12:35 p.m. Asking David about this moment, as well as the very title of his book (a title that is “code” to people of faith, who talk about dying and going to Heaven as “going home to glory”), David Eisenhower told me: “Well, you picked up exactly what the title is about. The real trip, he goes to Gettysburg. He goes to Abilene, but the real trip home is the way he deals with the mystery that confronts all of us in life, and that is, “What is to come?” “Why am I here?”
Recently, while driving through a small Virginia town, I noticed a church sign bearing these words, “When You Meet God Will He Say ‘WELL DONE’ or ‘WELL…?’”
That old saying about old soldiers never dying, but simply fading away, doesn’t seem to capture the essence of what David Eisenhower has written in his memoir about his famous grandfather. What seems to fit much better is something written by the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians: “…from glory to glory.” (II Corinthians 3:18)