Eisenhower's Timeless Virtues

If only more presidents aspired to do less.


When Dwight Eisenhower was first mentioned as a possible candidate for president in 1948, House Speaker Sam Rayburn offered a pithy assessment: "Good man but wrong business." Today it's clear that few of the White House's occupants have been more right for the job. 

Eisenhower was the last president born in the 19th century—125 years ago this week. He governed during the 1950s, a decade that now seems hopelessly anachronistic. But our experience since then illuminates virtues he had that have grown more valuable as they have become rarer. 

In office, he was disparaged on both the left and the right. Conservative pundit William F. Buckley said Ike was "undaunted by principle, unchained by any coherent ideas as to the nature of man and society." To Democrats, he was the antithesis of Adlai Stevenson, whom they regarded as "the voice of a reasonable, civilized, elevated America," in the words of liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger. 

What looked like defects then look better now. He ended one war, in Korea, and began no new ones. He balanced the federal budget three times and reduced the federal debt as a share of gross domestic product. He cut spending in inflation-adjusted dollars. He steered his party away from McCarthyism. 

Inspiring speeches were not his thing. His supporters said "I like Ike," not "I revere Ike." Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, he resisted using the presidency as a "bully pulpit." He lacked the grand ambitions of Franklin Roosevelt. 

Critics who saw him as a do-nothing despaired at his popularity with the American people. Richard Strout wrote in The New Republic, "The less he does the more they love him." A public with fresh memories of the Great Depression and World War II wanted tranquility, not transformation. 

Eisenhower wasn't averse to action when it was required. But he showed a keen appreciation of limits—the limits of military power, the federal government's competence and the role of the president. 

He had a sense of perspective rooted in the perils he had overcome as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II. When he traveled to give the commencement address in 1954 at Penn State University, where his brother was president, downpours forced the huge event indoors. Milton apologized, but Ike smiled and said he hadn't worried about rain since it threatened to impede the Normandy invasion. 

He would not be spooked into rash decisions. When France was losing a war in Vietnam, he declined to send U.S. forces to help an ally—and he quashed a proposal by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to use nuclear weapons. "You boys must be crazy," was his reply. 

When the Soviets sent troops to crush an uprising in Hungary in 1956, some conservatives wanted action to roll back the communist empire. Eisenhower sent a letter asking the Soviets to withdraw. They didn't. 

While championing NATO as a bulwark against Moscow, he pushed for the rearmament of West Germany to reduce the American load. He warned against excessive arms spending promoted by the "military-industrial complex." 

On the occasions that he took regrettable steps abroad, he at least minimized risks to Americans. After unfriendly governments gained power in Iran and Guatemala, he used covert action by the CIA, not military invasions, to overthrow them. 

No one would argue that Eisenhower, who advised blacks to practice "patience and forbearance," did enough for racial equality. But he ended segregation in Veterans Administration hospitals and in schools on military bases. He pushed through the first civil rights act since Reconstruction. 

When the governor of Arkansas defied a court order to admit blacks to a public school in Little Rock, Ike sent the 101st Airborne Division to enforce it—provoking opposition from, among others, Sen. John F. Kennedy. 

In 1956, Eisenhower won 39 percent of the black vote, the most any Republican had achieved since 1932. Eight years later, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater got just 6 percent of the black vote. In 2012, Mitt Romney got less. That is just one measure of how today's Republican Party would be unrecognizable to Eisenhower. 

He was one of our best presidents because of his seasoned judgment and steady calm during a period more turbulent than we often remember. Too bad that among the people now vying to win the presidency, in either party, there is no one like Ike.

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Steve,

    He’s one of my favorites too. I say the best post-war president with the exception of Obama, who edges him out by a hair. His enthusiastic support of social security, progressive taxation, New Deal Era programs, infrastructure projects, and limited military commitments would put him in the radical Left camp if he were around now.

    1. Obama better than Eisenhower?

      Get real pal.

      1. I say that only because Eisenhower put up with that tinpot dictator-wannabe, Joseph McCarthy.

        1. I say that only because Eisenhower put up with that tinpot dictator-wannabe, Joseph McCarthy.

          You do realize that was a calculated political decision that vindicated Eisenhower’s approach, yes? Eisenhower despised McCarthy, but he, unlike you, was smart enough to realize that McCarthy needed dramas, so by ignoring him he knew McCarthy would eventually overreach and hang himself.

    2. limited military commitments

      At least half of all federal spending during that period went to the DoD.

      1. Yeah, he spent too much getting ready to fight commies who weren’t a threat. But compared to his predecessor and the guy after that who put hundreds of thousands of troops in Vietnam he begins to look good.

          1. Hey, dipshit! Paid your mortgage yet? Or like a good commie, are you still free-riding o0n the rest of us who keep our word?

            1. I hope I’m not spitting at people on the Internet when I get into the old folks’ home.

        1. the guy after that who put hundreds of thousands of troops in Vietnam


            1. Hey, dipshit! Still free-riding on honest people?

        2. Yeah, he spent too much getting ready to fight commies who weren’t a threat.

          Not maintaining a large military in the face of Soviet geopolitical foreign policy wasn’t an option for any President back then.

          1. Yeah, I suppose. Keeping poor people in 3rd world countries from nationalizing the assets of American companies was and is a vital national interest– to some, at least.

            1. What is wrong with preventing theft?

              1. i know! I get it, man. Shooting peasants in the head or, better yet, bombing them on behalf of American multinationals is a reason for taxpayers to give the DoD trillions of dollars. Property Rights enforced by F-16 flyovers, I say.

                People bitch a lot about Obama and crony capitalism, but what Cold Warriors were doing in Central America was noble and heroic.

                1. american socialist|10.12.15 @ 1:31PM|#
                  “i know! I get it, man.”

                  Not a chance. A lying, thieving asshole like you would never “get it”

            2. The Third World caused as many problems for themselves in the post-World War 2 era as were foisted upon them.

    3. Hi AmSoc!

      Please help me with my Stalin Scouts badge! I need to know how long I have to wait before I start the purges of the useful idiots.

      We spent 3.3% of GDP in welfare under Ike and almost 10% of defense. Why on earth would a thief like yourself like Ike?

    4. Really? Are you on drugs…. I guess I could talk abnout the failed reset with Russi or the mess with ISIS and the refugees in to Europe which is all Obama’s fault because of his inability to get a Forces Agreement in Iraq?

      The on going war is all his. He earned it by his disengagement and not understanding the consiquense of his actions.

      There is no real substance to the man, he is a “stuffed shirt”, and not all that bright. History will not be kind to Obama and when he leaves office he will have very little power or influance,.

      Thought he will make Billions giving speaches like BC did…. all a payoff….

    5. Obama? Really? At best he’s a half-wit.

    6. Please! Don’t even mention them in the same sentence! You are comparing apples and watermelons-no pun intended!

  2. Love him or hate him, you have to give Ike props for being able to successfully lead the entire Allied war effort. The degree of intelligence and ability necessary to marshal such a vast collection of individuals, agencies, and nations (who often had huge conflicts of interest and personality between one another at all levels) to success is mind boggling.

    1. If Hitler had let his real military minds run the war, they’d have won.

    2. And great credit for keeping Churchill from strangling DeGaul, and Patton from shooting Montgomery.

      1. Actually, Churchill had an irrational fondness for de Gaulle. It was FDR who would have like to have strangled him (if de Gaulle would have been obliging enough to lean down so FDR could reach his neck from his wheelchair).

        1. We all have our crosses to bear – mine is the Cross of Lorraine

          -Winston Churchill

        2. Regarding De Gaulle, I think it was General Patch who mentioned that he an De Gaulle fought together, and at times, against a common enemy.

  3. What, no mention of ‘90%%%%% tax rate!’?

    1. The day is still young.

  4. Since Richman is constantly whinging about Mossadegh (under Eisenhower’s watch), and traces all ills in the Middle East to his overthrow, why don’t the two of you have a Tard-Off?

  5. Eisenhower’s Presidential career was a reflection of his military career–exercise managerialism without excessive micromanagement while maintaining as low of a profile as possible to deflect negative attention to the point of underestimation.

    The Democrats’ nomination of Stevenson during both elections in the 50s was a precursor to their cargo cult of academics as all-knowing sages.

  6. He’s still no Coolidge.

  7. Eisenhower was a fraud,a scam artist- just like all the rest of them, both before, and since.

    However, most likely:

    “In In your dreams Donald Trump is not a scam,
    In your dreams,Bernie Sanders is not a scam
    In your dreams, all the rest [of the candidates] are not a scam
    “In your dreams Obama is not a scam,
    “In your dreams George Bush was not a scam,
    “In your dreams Clinton was not a scam,
    “In your dreams Reagan was not a scam,
    In your dreams, all the rest were not a scam”
    “In your dreams the constitution is not a scam,
    “In your dreams the Supreme Court is not a scam,
    “In your dreams, welfare is not a scam”
    “In your dreams, social security is not a scam ”

    ……And so on and so forth, ad infinitum 🙂 .

    My original music and lyrics: “Dreams[ Hormegeddon Blues]”:

    Regards, onebornfree.
    Personal Freedom Consulting: onebornfreeatyahoodotcom

  8. I don’t care who gets elected, or who doesn’t, nor what the Fed does/does not do, or whether we are in for a recession, a depression, a deflation, hyper inflation or whatever, none of which can be accurately and consistently predicted by , in any case 🙂 .


    Because whatever happens, my entirely self-managed, fully diversified, once per year adjusted long term savings plan will be safe and protected and will , 9 times out of 10, grow at an average of 8% per year over and above the prevailing inflation [or deflation], rate, year in, year out, as it has since 1986 when I started using it.

    For a link to the plans results 1972-2011, email: onebornfreeatyahoodotcom ,
    with “Savings Plan Results” in the subject line

    Financial Safety Services

    1. Agile Cyborg’s alcohol-fueled musings have a stronger thesis statement.

      1. I think Agile and the Spambot have made a love child.

  9. Oh, if only we could go back to the 1950’s.

    Now we sound like grandma and grandad.

    1. Hey Brian,

      I like Obama more than Ike so I’m not looking to the past at least. I consider it a good thing that in the intervening years between 1960-2015 someone nationalized the state National Guard in order to force redneck assholes to allow Black people to go to integrated schools. If the choice were to live in 1958 or 2015, I’d probably go with 2015–warts and all.

      I say libertarians like ourselves shouldn’t align ourselves with Tea Party asshole conservatives who like the 50s– complete with the subordinate position of racial minorities, immigrants and women– much more than you and I do.

      1. american socialist|10.12.15 @ 12:43PM|#
        “I like Obama”

        As if we need more proof of your imbecility…

  10. Speaking of Eisenhower, I spotted this one on ZeroHedge about his farewell speech when he mentionned the “military-industrial complex” while it was originally the “military-industrial-congressional” complex.

      1. You’re welcome. 🙂

  11. Ike was a communist tool.

  12. Wasn’t Eisenhower’s greatest achievement the Interstate system?
    ROADZ, beatches, for the win!

    1. Supreme Allied Commander

  13. The 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran created a lot of blowback. I wonder if Eisenhower signed off on it because it was already in the works when he took over the White House. It doesn’t quite square with the other examples of international restraint the author cites.

  14. Republicans are certainly recognizable to those poor bastards over in Eastern Europe. The same Positive Christianity that pumped German National Socialism up into a dictatorship of global proportions is clearly visible in the remaining dregs of God’s Own Prohibitionist party. People who cannot read the newspapers in other languages have no conception of how the U.S. is hated and feared abroad–by many people NOT stuck in the Dark Ages–because of Republican and Democratic Party policies.

  15. Mr. Chapman,

    Eisenhower did not balance the fiscal budget; it was driven into balance by the spending and saving decisions of the private domestic and foreign sectors. The federal budgetary process does not have that sort of control.

    1. I misread this as the “The Federal Buggery Process”

      I like this phrase.

    2. Plus, Congress controls the purse strings, not the President.

  16. Calvin Coolidge was better. He didn’t have an ambitious foreign policy.

  17. Like Reagan, Ike was saddled with a creepy RINO VP whom he privately found disgusting. So, much of the good Eisenhower did was undone by the traitorous villain whom he reluctantly helped succeed him. Such a shame. Eisenhower was probably the best President since Washington. I grew up in the Eisenhower administration. If he were alive now and began an 8 year term as president, at the end of that time most of the problems we face now and which seem insurmountable would be solved. The asshats we have in politics now, Right and Left, are pathetic clowns compared to Ike.

    1. Yup. Amazing what shrinking the federal government,staying out of other people’s business and enforcing civil rights will do for America.

    2. Personally, I think of Bush41 as a strong contender for “Biggest Tool of the Neocons”. Starting around Reagan’s Lame Duck Period, beginning sometime in 1986, the stench of Neocon began wafting ever stronger from the White House and its Occupant Apparent: George GW.

  18. Keeping the federal government’s hand the fuck off of everything seems like a good idea, but I’m guessing that ship has sailed.

  19. Great article. Thanks.

  20. I liked Ike too. He came to my town to campaign and made my friend’s mother, Ivy Baker Priest, Secretary of the treasury. He was a nice man who never made a partisan statement or made nasty comments about his opposition and even took the time to say hello to us.

    It was a good time for the country and on the political scene the parties weren’t nearly so hate filled. I have to admit, from a young person’s perspective, I thought the Democrat candidate was not nearly so likeable.

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