A Memoir of Life With Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969
David Eisenhower with Julie Nixon Eisenhower
Simon and Schuster: 324 pp., $28
David Eisenhower's touching memoir of his grandfather's final years raises an uncomfortable issue for 21st century Republicans. If Dwight D. Eisenhower were alive today, he'd very likely be drummed out of the Republican Party, unless he were prepared to renounce his firm belief in a "dynamic center in national politics" that included support for Social Security and the principle of government intervention in economic affairs, "policies Eisenhower had regarded as vital and had supported under Roosevelt and Truman," his grandson writes.
The man whose affable, low-key tenure in the White House helped restore a sense of normalcy to the United States after two decades of crisis was also the president who in 1957 sent federal troops to Arkansas, to enforce compliance with the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision mandating school desegregation. The general who led Allied forces to victory in Europe warned in his farewell address as president of a "military industrial complex" intent on maintaining a "military machine so big that it just has to be used."
It's easy to imagine the response those actions would draw from today's conservatives, and David Eisenhower's account of the 1964 Republican convention reminds us that his grandfather wasn't popular with the party's right wing back then either. Barry Goldwater called Eisenhower's administration "a dime-store New Deal" and declined to soften any of his ultraconservative positions at a post-convention news conference with Eisenhower that was intended to bolster party unity. "I thought that Goldwater was just stubborn," Eisenhower remarked on the ride home to Pennsylvania. "Now I am convinced that he is just plain dumb."
Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory seemingly vindicated this judgment, but David Eisenhower has the benefit of hindsight to grasp Goldwater's true motives: "to court martyrdom and to seize the party to secure a forum for expanding his views." In that, Goldwater succeeded brilliantly; the kind of Republicanism that Eisenhower represented is virtually extinct at the moment. The memoir does not look beyond 1969, the year of Eisenhower's death, but this nostalgic tribute could be seen as an implicit rebuke to those who reject his legacy of bipartisanship and moderation.
Politics loom large but are smoothly blended with affectionate memories of Eisenhower in his post-presidential years. (Although Julie Nixon Eisenhower, David's wife, is credited as a co-author, the narrative is written in the first person from David's point of view.) Ike comes across as very much the former military man: gracious in public but somewhat aloof in private, not given to expressing any emotions except ferocious competitiveness at golf and the bridge table, where he terrified his hapless partners with scathing analyses of their mistakes.
He was a private man; when David asked his grandmother whether she felt she had really known her husband, Mamie replied, "I'm not sure anyone did." Such old-fashioned reticence made his rare moments of sentiment all the more precious to his family. David reprints a moving letter in which his grandfather declared, "I'm not only proud that you are my grandson but my friend as well — to whom I give my deepest affection," then notes with amused understanding that this effusion would never be repeated: "it would be a strange world indeed if Granddad had suddenly started 'letting it all hang out.'"
Indeed, Eisenhower had no use for the '60s counterculture and criticized Vietnam draft resisters "who are quite willing to enjoy the privileges and rights afforded by this country but publicly announce their readiness to flout their responsibilities." Duty, honor, country: the West Point graduate took his school's motto as his guiding principles, and David's tender portrait of Eisenhower's last days at Walter Reed Army Hospital show a man satisfied that he had fulfilled his obligations, "serene … and unafraid" as he approached death. Both a warm personal recollection and a cogent summary of Eisenhower's place in the American political spectrum, this gracefully written memoir vividly evokes a man whose commitment to responsibility and restraint in all things seems more attractive than ever in our overheated age.
Smith, a contributing editor for the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for The Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.