Eisenhower: The White House Years (2011) by Jim Newton

Dwight Eisenhower president during the most nostalgically beloved decade has found his own affectionate place among those who dream of a time where moderates worked together while leaving those awkward extremists off their social calendars. Just look at the list of people Jim Newton got to blurb his new biography of Ike’s White House Years: John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Dianne Feinstein, and Norman Lear. The sort of folks who dreamed about two parties who GOVERNED not grandstand that worried about policy, not political affiliation. Of course such a time never existed but when you have to watch Republicans take (and following!) pledges never to raise taxes again, Senators understandably fall into a little daydreaming. What is not as forgivable is when a journalist and nominal historian does the same. Newton at the end of the book uses Eisenhower’s shockingly persistent warning of the military-industrial complex to take a couple swipes at George W. Bush and Obama and governmental regulatory policy. He’s stuck as Hagel thinking government could work or at least should as it did under Eisenhower

Anyone who would be subjected to such hagiographic biography is probably pretty awful.  Theoretically a good president made difficult, controversial decisions that would lead historians to make complex judgment of their accomplishments and failures. Not so for Jim Newton, who can barely sop to the idea that the general may have made a wrong decision. The White House Years is a chronological view of the day-to-day life (“struggles” would be a far too dramatic word to describe the book) of President Eisenhower where you get barely idea of the period or the man. Like most books of this ilk, crises are the focus instead of any philosophical underpinnings for policy. It doesn’t help that there is very little idea of domestic policy outside of Eisenhower slow (Newton describes it as a moderate) approach to McCarthyism focusing more on politics and foreign policy. In this field Eisenhower help overthrow the freely elected leaders of Iran and Guatemala. A course of action Newton only finds the courage to criticize near the end of the book.

Personality-wise, while Eisenhower has the reputation to be bland as oatmeal, he was still a man who led a multinational force against Nazi Germany and President of United States who navigated the waters during the early Cold War. He obviously had some ideas on America and its place in the world. But Newton can barely get past cliché pleasantries of Eisenhower’s upbringing in Kansas as though he personified the virtues of a state. When you are unwilling to talk about vices there are very little to say about a person. It takes away the sharpness of a human being when you will not question their motives. Also it makes any critics look like the Romans crucifying Jesus. Adlai Stevenson did not shame himself in 1956 when he questioned a man who suffered a massive heart attack and health problems could handle the difficulties of office for another 4 years but Newton can only wonder who would dare speak ill of Dwight. Yet there are serious criticisms of Eisenhower, he should have moved faster on Civil Rights and against McCarthyism. He shouldn’t have put so much trust in the CIA. The people he surrounded himself were not topnotch and would bring around governmental difficulties.

To quickly speak about the scholarship, Newton obviously read many book on Eisenhower and some primary sources about his White House years. He got to interview John Eisenhower (which leads to him being over-represented in the book) but otherwise keeps to the records. There won’t be any new arguments found for those with a decent background in the 1950s as Newton keeps us on the tourist campgrounds far away from any grizzly bears or anything interesting.

But I’m not one to ignore fascinating tidbits just because I hate the book and there are nice pieces of information throughout the work. Consider this speech given by Eisenhower to the American Society of Newspapers:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Even I, if only for a moment, dream of a time where keeping defensive spending down was a Republican goal and not some sort of crypto-form of treason which for them to yell about. Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich would watch Social Security burn before taking a nickel from the Coast Guard and it’s hard to see Ron Paul as an heir of Eisenhower. And thus a little nostalgia for moderate Republicans before they all went to the great golf course in the sky might be entitled. Let’s just not pretend it serves justice to them.

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