Forgotten in Republican campaign, Eisenhower rises in stature

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 11, 2012 10:28 PM
Forgotten in Republican campaign, Eisenhower rises in stature

By Kevin Murphy

ABILENE, Kansas (Reuters) - Former President Dwight Eisenhower is hardly mentioned during the Republican campaign for the White House this year even though the reputation of the World War Two general-turned-politician is rising among a record number of scholars studying his presidency.

Some 800 scholars, journalists, graduate students and others poured through Eisenhower documents last year in the wood-paneled research room at the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

Eisenhower is the subject of several new biographies and he is consistently rated among the 10 best presidents in surveys of historians. In Washington, a memorial to Eisenhower is planned on the National Mall.

"Eisenhower is being rediscovered," said Karl Weissenbach, director of the Eisenhower library and museum in the plains of central Kansas, 160 miles west of Kansas City.

He grew up in Abilene, a farming town with a population now of about 6,000, as one of seven boys in the family.

He left to attend the Army military school West Point after high school, but returned often to Abilene and is buried with his wife Mamie in a chapel on the grounds of the museum and library. His boyhood home is also there.

Millions of documents have become declassified in recent years, creating a trove of research material for those who travel to perhaps the most remote of the nation's presidential libraries.

But the new attention to Eisenhower has done nothing to put his name on the lips of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. The two-term Republican president is all but forgotten in favor of Ronald Reagan when candidates tout a model leader.

Experts on Eisenhower said he is misunderstood as a disengaged, loafing president. More importantly, they said he is considered a moderate on fiscal and social issues.

"His politics just do not fit with the perceived political needs of Republicans of today," said Jim Newton, editor-at-large of The Los Angeles Times and author of "Eisenhower: The White House Years," published last fall.

Under Eisenhower, taxes increased and the rich were hit especially hard. On the spending side, Eisenhower oversaw construction of the Interstate highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway, launched the space program and expanded Social Security eligibility.

Eisenhower blunted the anti-Communist crusade of Senator Joe McCarthy, racially-integrated the military and enforced the court-ordered desegregation of public schools while appointing federal judges who would uphold civil rights laws, said close observers of his presidency.

"He was actually responsible for more progressive post-war legislation than any president except LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson) in spite of the fact he was a Republican and Congress was steadfastly Democratic," said R. Clay Reynolds, an arts and humanities professor at the University of Texas, who is a reviewer of books on Eisenhower's presidency.

Weissenbach said Eisenhower got 74 percent of his programs through Congress and left with a public approval rating of 70 percent. But when Eisenhower left office in 1961, polling of scholars ranked him 28th among 34 presidents, Weissenbach said.

"At the time, the academic world did not have access to millions of pages of documents that showed there was another Eisenhower," Weissenbach said. "I think that happens at first with a lot of presidents."

Declassified Eisenhower documents now number 27 million, compared to 12 million when he left office, Weissenbach said. Last year, the research room at the Eisenhower library was often full of people examining documents available only at the library.

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Eisenhower's low-key way of governing is not in keeping with today's favored approach.

"Eisenhower's willingness to let things simmer for a while is not in tune ideologically or stylistically with the Republican Party," Loomis said. "That said, it's remarkable he would not be brought up more as an icon."

One factor may be that Eisenhower's presidency ended 51 years ago and is not remembered by most Americans, Loomis said.

Eisenhower had achievements that would be laudable goals of any presidential candidate, said David Nichols, author last year of the book "Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis," which is about the confrontation with Egypt over the Suez Canal and the then Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary.

Nichols said no American died in a foreign war under Eisenhower, who was Supreme Allied Commandeer of World War Two forces in Europe. At home, the United States ended his last year in office with a budget surplus, rare for presidents in modern times.

Nichols said the academic world tended not to be interested in Eisenhower, partly because it has a bias toward Democrats. Another small factor may be that Abilene is seen as a remote and inconvenient place to do research, especially by East Coast scholars, he said.

"Partly, it's just ignorance," Nichols said. "People have not really been taught in school about Eisenhower. It's a disgrace. We don't need to make a saint out of him, but he should not be ignored for the critical things he did."

Historians have noted blemishes on Ike's presidential record. For example, he approved CIA coups to overthrow governments in Iran and Latin America and he endured criticism over the initial U.S. denial that it sent a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Belying his initial reputation for being a bit too relaxed, history has shown Eisenhower to be deeply engaged in decisions and legislation, Newton said.

"You see more and more of his hand at work," Newton said. By and large, Eisenhower "had a scandal-free administration and one with a successful economic record," Newton said.

In addition to the recent books by Newton and Nichols, Eisenhower is profiled in a just-released book "Eisenhower in War and Peace" by Jean Edward Smith. Historian Evan Thomas plans to release a book on Eisenhower later this year.

While Republican candidates have not mentioned Eisenhower in the primaries because they want to appear conservative and hard-charging, he could carry appeal in the general election, said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

"That could happen if they are trying to figure out a way to win over independents and moderate Republicans," Beatty said. "It would show that a Republican president of the past had a way to bring people together."

(Editing by Greg McCune)