FROM MY BOOKSHELF – A Recurring Column of Literary Reviews
Though one of America’s most popular presidents personally and politically, Dwight David Eisenhower practically faded into oblivion at the end of his second term, when he retired from public life.
The fifties were fondly recollected, because of peace and prosperity under Eisenhower’s leadership, as “the good old days.” America “liked Ike.”
The oldest president to leave office, Eisenhower was succeeded, in stark contrast, by the youngest ever to be elected, John F. Kennedy, who in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, underscored that dichotomy by declaring that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.”
Kennedy and his glamorous and elegant wife, Jackie, were the toast of the town. They were essentially America’s “royal couple,” and the Kennedy years, though brief and tempestuous, were known as the Age of Camelot. Suave and debonair, Kennedy’s style caused the memory of the comparatively bland and frumpy Eisenhower to fade quickly. Kennedy’s premature and tragic death by assassination, cutting his presidency to a mere 1036 days only magnified his legacy and reduced Ike’s to a fading memory.
From 1992 to 2012, however, an unlikely phenomenon affected American politics in a manner that caused the public to take a second look at older presidents who lacked charisma. Three very young men by presidential age standards – Bill Clinton (46), George W. Bush (54), and Barack Obama (47) were each elected to two terms, thus by the end of Obama’s second term culminating in 24 years of comparatively youthful leadership. Even though all three were reelected, they were not without their critics. Clinton never won a popular majority, Bush finished with abysmally low approval ratings, and Obama, despite campaigning heavily for his Democratic successor, Hillary Clinton, fell flat. Some of the criticism stemmed from a perception of generational liabilities of haste and inexperience. All three, to some extent, were seen as foreign policy amateurs, despite having achieved successes that caused the public to reelect them.
Jon Meacham’s 2016 book Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, whose theme includes the public largely not having appreciated the elder Bush while he was in office, and that the farther removed we are from him the larger he looms, is emblematic of a reversion to mature age and experience. And in that vein, the Eisenhower renaissance was awakened.
Numerous books emerged, bolstering a presidential historiography that had been shelved for decades. The Hidden-Hand presidency (Fred I. Greenstein, 1994) preceded the new wave, but introduced the idea that Ike was far from the bumbling golfer his image often suggested, and that seeking underestimation was part of his strategy. Ike’s Bluff (Evan Thomas, 2012) and The Age of Eisenhower (William I. Hitchcock, 2018) are among the more prevalent examples of historians’ reborn interest in Ike, but Eisenhower: Becoming the Leader of the Free World by Louis Galambos (2017) gives us a perspective about the former general and president that so many other Eisenhower volumes failed to address adequately.
The book’s inside jacket cover describes Galambos, longtime editor of the Eisenhower Papers, as perhaps knowing “more about this president than anyone alive.”
A professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, which published the book, the Greek-American Galambos writes with flair about Eisenhower as a boy and a young man being particularly averse to following orders.
Unlike other biographers, Galambos does not merely introduce various facts about Ike’s life for the sake of chronological completion, but instead carefully organizes them into a theme that leaves the reader understanding how and why Eisenhower the general and later president became the man he was.
Much like former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman, who often said his notorious reputation for knocking out opponents very early in fights stemmed from his intense dislike of being hit (he figured, the faster he knocked them out, the less chance they would have to hit him), Eisenhower arguably was motivated to rise to a level of authority where he would give the orders, so as not to have to be the one to follow them. Though Galambos does not suggest this was the sole or even primary motivation for Ike’s compulsion for success, he certainly plants the seeds to cause the reader to wonder about it.
A succinct 218 total pages of non-ancillary text, the reader does not even reach Eisenhower as president until page 171, thus already having completed 78% of the book. Though one might be skeptical as to how Galambos can effectively cover Eisenhower’s two terms in a mere 47 pages, he draws on his unparalleled knowledge of Ike and his own ability to say a great deal in just a few words.
This volume is essential to any collection of the 34th president and to the overall historical biography of presidents whose gravitas, not luster, made them formidable.