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President Eisenhower, No Warm And Fuzzy Grandpa

March 23, 2011

Have you ever finished a book and concluded that the text was well researched and presented, the story lively and engaging, and yet at the end you still had not warmed to the main subject?

That is how I felt at the end of “Going Home To Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower 1961-1969”, by David Eisenhower.

Yet the book is one I would highly recommend

This book is a polished look at the end years of an ex-American President, and as such it is quite remarkable.  There are nuggets of political insight into the power plays of the aging general, and funny moments when it was noted Dwight sat a certain distance from the TV to avoid radiation.  (I trust that was for humor.)

The book is a pleasant and informative read, and grandson David along with his wife Julie Nixon Eisenhower, are to be applauded for what turned out to be a keeper for the bookshelves.  They hopefully will write more books in the same style.

Therefore my problem is not with the book, but instead with Dwight Eisenhower as presented in the book.  

Going into the book I thought a more  warm and fuzzy grandpa image would emerge at some point, but none ever appeared.  While I did not expect Grandpa Walton to leap from the pages I did think that there would be more depth of emotion and feeling conveyed in the pages from Eisenhower.

I recall books about Abraham Lincoln who mention the tall politician taking off his waistcoat and lying down in the living room to play with his children.  There was never any moment that even remotely came close to that image within the pages of “Going Home To Glory”.

I am sure Eisenhower would have been fun to talk with, and a gentlemen all the way.  He came from a generation where manners counted, and his poise and charm was very evident in public.  That was one reason he was so electable.

But throughout the book I got the strong impression he lacked any ability for real introspection about his life.  He seemed rough at times in his personal dealings with his son, and made me feel that perhaps he viewed him as an employee more than a family member.  At times I got the same impression in how Dwight handled grandson, David, who worked painting fences and such on the Eisenhower farm.

Part of that is due, no doubt, to the military mindset that shaped almost all of Eisenhower’s life.  While the military provided a lifetime of learning and obvious career enhancements, Eisenhower never seemed to have mastered the quieter side of life where reflection and calm also shapes who people become.

It is much harder in the book to get a true handle of Mamie Eisenhower who seems content to watch soap operas in bed and play what seems to be an unending game of solitaire.  I wanted to know more about her, and wonder perhaps if after years of being neglected by the general she finally just gave up on having a normal relationship with her husband.  They had social friends and traveled but there never seems to be a loving relationship that lifts the sails of the heart between these two.

That seemed very sad.

I have long felt, as many do, that Eisenhower did not treat Richard Nixon respectfully during the fund crisis, and also when others inside Ike’s political team had hoped to replace Nixon on the ticket in 1956.  Eisenhower failed to give an early full-throated endorsement of Nixon in 1960. 

That same tepid ‘half on-half off’ attitude is displayed in “Going Home To Glory” when trying to find a replacement candidate to Barry Goldwater for the 1964 presidential nomination.

By the time the Goldwater forces had defeated the moderates, and the 1964 political season was over, Pennsylvania Governor Bill Scranton knew exactly how Richard Nixon had once felt. 

There is no real insight given as to why Eisenhower acted as he did when opening a door a crack for political assistance and then closing it.    Leaving Scranton holding the cards and not being able to play any of them on a Sunday morning news show made me feel some anger at Eisenhower.  (I will let interested readers get more details if they decide to read this book.)

I very much enjoy the background type books about presidents after they leave office.  But as I closed this book I recalled a truism.

History dictates how the story is told.

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