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In the Search for Greatness, Is Eisenhower the Answer?

February 09, 1997|Michael Kazin | Michael Kazin is a history professor at American University. His most recent book is "The Populist Persuasion: An American History" (Basic Books)

WASHINGTON — What kind of history is President Bill Clinton making? Since winning reelection, the president has reportedly been obsessed with how he can reach the "second tier" of chief executives--that symbolic perch occupied by such men as Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman who "did great things" but were not tested, as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt were, by a major war or a national crisis. In Tuesday's State of the Union address, Clinton's declaration, "we do have an enemy: The enemy of our time is inaction" was clearly designed to polish his reputation as a vigorous chief executive with an ambitious agenda.

But assuming the president sticks to his centrist course and avoids the morass of scandal, he is more likely to be compared to a less distinguished predecessor: Dwight David Eisenhower.

Based on their pre-presidential lives, the parallel seems absurd. Aside from a love of golf, what could a man who opposed the Vietnam War and then single-mindedly pursued his electoral ambitions have in common with a West Point graduate and military hero who identified with no party until he agreed to run for the White House?

Put the personal details aside: Every president is, above all, a politician. Each man inherits certain programs and attitudes about the role of government. Each also assumes leadership of a party that can aid or hinder his plans. What he makes of this inheritance largely determines his place in history. To achieve greatness, a president must be able to convince a majority of Americans, and often many activists in his own ranks, to take the nation in a new direction--requiring bold moves that, decades later, most historians judge to have been decisive, if not always correct in every detail.

Thus, Teddy Roosevelt challenged "malefactors of great wealth" to stop abusing workers and consumers; while Truman began the nuclear age and initiated a broad and expensive policy of containing the Soviet empire. Each man faced an intraparty revolt that threatened his hold on power, but neither allowed it to slow or alter his transformative course. And, today, most Americans still applaud their different legacies--the need to regulate corporate behavior and to aggressively pursue the Cold War.

But Eisenhower, like Clinton, was a cautious moderate. Though he was the first Republican president in 20 years, Ike had no inclination to roll back the New Deal during a period of rapid economic growth. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs," he wrote to his conservative brother Edgar, "you would not hear of that party again in our political history."

Ike dubbed "New Republicanism" his acceptance, albeit at a lower spending level, of the state that his liberal Democratic predecessors had built. In foreign affairs, he continued Truman's tough stance toward the Soviet Union, though Eisenhower preferred to use the CIA and the threat of nuclear missiles rather than deploy U.S. troops. Eisenhower did voice a memorable critique of the "military-industrial complex." But he said this just three days before he left office; the size of what he called this "immense" establishment had mushroomed during his own administration.

Eisenhower was also a clever, nimble politician. After allowing Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy to destroy himself with charges that the Army was harboring communists, Ike formed a bipartisan alliance with the Democratic majority in Congress, thus marginalizing and embittering right-wing critics in his own party. This early episode of "triangulation" required a mastery of public relations. Eisenhower's warmth and confidence were prime assets on television, and, with the help of savvy aides from private industry, he carefully avoided taking confrontational stands that would jeopardize his middle-of-the-road image.

When he first come into office, Clinton did have a few grander purposes in mind, particularly universal health care. But he purposely rejected stereotypical liberal stands on such basic issues as welfare and capital punishment. And, since the GOP captured Congress in 1994, the president has played the role of a Democratic Eisenhower, whose party also lost control of the House and Senate in his first midterm election. As Ike smilingly acquiesced to liberalism with a wave and a smile, Clinton co-opted the right's tough talk on crime, its support for a balanced budget and its enthusiasm for "family values." As Eisenhower kept his distance from GOP conservatives, so Clinton has avoided identifying with the liberal stalwarts in his own party, who last year swallowed their anger and helped vanquish the "greater evil," Bob Dole.

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