When I read an article touting the new biography of Dwight Eisenhower, entitled “The Age of Eisenhower,” as a page-turner, I sort of scoffed at the thought. Could a book about a U.S. President that didn’t even serve during a time of war really make it into that category? The answer is…. kind of.
First of all there was a LOT of content in this book. I love a substantial Notes section, and William I. Hitchcock’s book did not disappoint on that front. The term “exhaustive” is appropriate here, and since I mostly do my reading a half hour or so before bed, it was tough to get through more than ten pages a night… this set me up for a showdown with the local library, in which I had to return the book half read and my friend checked it out for me so I could start it up again.
But I digress. I’ll start off with all the things I had not known about Eisenhower, including where he was born and how he was raised, the details of his vast and exemplary military service, and his longstanding belief that a foray into politics was not in his future. These aren’t the gritty details that made this dense tome on Eisenhower so fascinating, though. To me it was more what his administration got away with, before news cameras and frequent public appearances were basically required by the job.
First off, the man golfed a LOT. I mean, a substantial amount. He was constantly on the golf course and a significant number of the stories in the book were prefaced by, “Eisenhower was on the golf course at such and such when he got the call that ____ happened and he had to return to the White House.” If there was the ability to track golf trips like some news outlets do these days, Ike would have far outpaced any of the presidents in recent history.
In addition to golfing, the man spent a lot of time recuperating. He was often sick, suffering a heart attack and a stroke while in office. The first heart attack knocked him out of commission for over two months, during which time a committee of six unelected officials steered his presidency. He also underwent a nearly three-hour surgery on his bowels while in office, and administration spokesman Jim Hagerty even admitted that no thought had been given to transferring power to Vice President Nixon during the procedure or Eisenhower’s three week recovery.
Speaking of Nixon, that was a difficult relationship. While Eisenhower was invested in helping his Vice President develop into a well-rounded political figure, he was hell-bent on keeping their trajectories as separate as possible. Nixon was kept out of Ike’s inner circle, and in fact Ike tried his damndest to replace Nixon as his veep when he ran for reelection in 1956. As Ike’s second term came to a close, he went out of his way to avoid campaigning for his Vice President, and delivered some cold lines when called out by reporters to heap praise on Nixon.
Another interesting topic, though one that it given surprisingly little space in the book, is Mamie Eisenhower’s legacy. She is described as “imperious, demanding, outgoing, and dynamic… with curly bangs, a devotion to high fashion and a lively personality.” After passing her first night in the White House in Bess Truman’s former room with a single bed, she demanded a king-sized bed with a pink upholstered headboard be placed in a neighboring sitting room, and announced that she and Ike would share it (unlike the Trumans and the Roosevelts, who had separate rooms). She is described as having a highly visible, trend-setting place as First Lady, well before Jacqueline Kennedy had the opportunity to be described as a glamorous White House occupant.
Obviously there are fascinating parts of the book examining Ike’s approach to McCarthyism and Russia. In my opinion, his handling of race relations in the United States was deplorable and worth reading about in depth. I also found myself engrossed in the sections regarding the expansion of the CIA and the United States’ influence in smaller nations as a result of the domino theory of Communism. Although Ike was known for his leadership qualities, I am reminded that by making no decision, a person really DOES make a decision… and I think that was an important part of his strategy.
All in all, I found some sections to be page-turners, while others were tough to get through. I’m glad I read it, and I certainly learned a great deal about Ike (and re-learned some sections of history).