Trying to Get the World to Again Like Ike
The town motto here is: “History. Heroes. Hospitality.” No one could call it false advertising, either.
Wild Bill Hickok served as sheriff here in 1871, so there’s your history. Dwight D. Eisenhower called Abilene home, and he’s a hero for sure. As for hospitality, well, the whole town smells like animal crackers thanks to a mill that churns bulgur wheat into flour. If that’s not enough, the cheery greeters at the visitor’s center hand out sugar cookies made from Mamie Eisenhower’s favorite recipe.
The problem is finding people to hand them to. For Abilene’s No. 1 tourist attraction, the Eisenhower Center, is having a tough time persuading folks to stop by.
To the chagrin of state officials, Kansans seem to be neglecting Ike.
Just 35% of visitors to the Eisenhower Center come from Kansas. A decade ago, the center--which includes Dwight and Mamie’s graves, Ike’s boyhood home, the presidential library and a museum--attracted 200,000 visitors annually. Last year, just 89,000 came.
Eisenhower boosters don’t like those numbers. They’re determined to remind Kansans, and Americans everywhere, why they should still like Ike.
“All at once we woke up and said, ‘Here’s our most outstanding citizen ever, and it appears we are doing nothing special to recognize him,’ ” recalled John Neal, a Kansan born and bred.
To atone for the lapse, Gov. Bill Graves recently appointed a nine-member commission to be chaired by Neal and charged with giving Eisenhower a PR boost. Just how they’ll accomplish that, commission members don’t know. An annual Eisenhower holiday? A glitzy Eisenhower dinner at the statehouse each year? Or maybe Ike could use a slogan, something more dramatic than the bland old “peace and prosperity” historians use to describe his presidency.
Harry S. Truman has a lock on “the buck stops here,” of course, and his presidential library has dibs on “legacy of leadership” as well. The Ronald Reagan Foundation in Simi Valley talks about Reagan’s commitment to the “four pillars of freedom,” meaning liberty, democracy, opportunity and patriotism. And then there’s Eisenhower. The most resonant phrase matched with his presidency is “I like Ike,” which makes him sound like a nice fellow, sure, but not all that significant.
“I’d like to come up with something very catchy that we could use to portray Eisenhower’s importance,” said one commission member, retired Army Lt. Gen. Richard Seitz. Eisenhower Center Director Dan Holt likes the idea. A slogan emphasizing Ike’s accomplishments might lend some sizzle to the $6-million fund-raising campaign he’s launched for a much-needed museum renovation.
The museum’s military wing was overhauled in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, and visitors can spend hours lost in its treasures. But while Eisenhower the general receives his due, the rooms dedicated to Eisenhower the president aren’t exactly five-star attractions.
“Kids go through the whole presidential gallery in about two minutes,” Holt admitted. Then he sighed. “Adults too.”
Indeed, the presidential wing, although heavy on photos of Ike playing golf, reveals almost nothing about Eisenhower’s initiatives, his politics or the key events of the 1950s. McCarthyism? Not mentioned. The Cold War? NATO? School desegregation? Try another museum.
The only nod to the Korean War is a glass case displaying the pen used to sign the armistice and a crude map of the Korean peninsula. The only hint that Eisenhower established a national highway system is a faded interstate sign. Yes, visitors can gawk at an astronaut helmet from the Gemini era, but they can’t read a thing about why Eisenhower founded NASA or why he insisted that the space program remain under civilian, not military, control.
So what is in the museum? “There’s a lot of space given to the visit of the queen,” Lynda Scheele, director of the Eisenhower Foundation, said sheepishly.
If they can raise enough money, museum curators plan to revamp the whole presidential gallery, filling it with interactive exhibits that challenge viewers to, for example, design a new highway grid or select the document a Soviet spy would most want.
Three hours’ drive away, at the Truman museum in Independence, Mo., Director Larry Hackman is working on a similar effort to spiff up exhibits. But Hackman emphasized that he’s less concerned with pumping up the Truman legacy than he is with educating visitors.
“We’re trying to look at how a presidential library can become useful and not just worshipful,” he said. “Our vision is not that people will know more about Harry Truman [after visiting], but that people will become better citizens.” Eisenhower’s boosters think they can do both at once: teach people about Ike’s extraordinary life and, in the process, stimulate civic participation. “This is a man,” Neal said, “who could really inspire a lot of people.”