Ike: An example for modern presidents

But Eisenhower had a great deal on his agenda: He wanted to balance the budget and end the Korean War. He integrated the military, which Harry Truman had promised and failed to do. He also desegregated the District of Columbia and the federal government, and used federal funding as leverage to force desegregation elsewhere. He fought for and signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. When the Democrats in Arkansas refused to comply with Brown, Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne. He established NASA and DARPA and signed the National Defense Education Act into law. He oversaw the revision of the Atomic Energy Act to allow for the development of civilian nuclear power. He smacked down Joseph McCarthy and, when his advisers unveiled a crackpot scheme to use nuclear weapons to save the French position at Dien Bien Phu, he replied: “You boys must be crazy.” He sent U.S. troops into Lebanon to stop a Soviet-backed revolt. He convinced Congress to pass the Formosa Resolution, obliging the United States to defend Taiwan against Communist China. He forced the withdrawal of foreign forces from Egypt during the Suez crisis. He saw to the elevation of West Germany as a full NATO member, a critical turning point in European affairs. He helped Mohammad Mosaddegh into an early retirement. He welcomed two new states into the Union…

He governed in complicated times. Those who take to heart only his warnings about the “military-industrial complex” should bear in mind that he oversaw a military budget that was, in real GDP terms, three times larger than it is today. He sometimes called himself a “progressive conservative,” meaning that, unlike the conservatives of his time, he saw no pressing need to dismantle the welfare state — which at the time (again, in real GDP terms) was barely a quarter of the size it is today. Time has a funny way with things: The conservative movement rejected Eisenhower in the 1950s, but which libertarian, national-security conservative, or traditionalist in 2017 would be unhappy if today’s Republicans cut 75 percent of the welfare state, tripled military spending, cut taxes modestly, and balanced the budget in the process — while working under a president with an excellent record on the most pressing domestic issue of his time?

It is not 1957 anymore, and a return to Eisenhower-era policies would be neither wise nor popular. But a return to modesty, prudence, and genuine responsibility? That is something to which we ought to aspire. The great events of Eisenhower’s day went from Great War to Depression to Holocaust to Cold War, a ghastly progression, but Eisenhower remained famous for his sunny disposition and his winning smile — which was, of course, partly genuine and partly camouflage that protected others from the burdens he bore. The United States does not need a Dwight Eisenhower holiday to go along with the days set aside for men such as Washington and Lincoln. What the United States does need is 365 days in the year on which we insist that the men with whom we entrust the nation’s business endeavor to live up to the example set by men who did so much more with so much less in incomparably harder times — that they, to the extent that they have it in them, be like Ike.