Vail Daily column: Doesn’t everyone like Ike?
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower smiles at me every day. In my library/study dedicated to Thomas Jefferson hangs a cheap portrait of Ike that my father treasured. Dad worshiped Christ and revered President Eisenhower. He found it difficult not to reverse the order.
Who didn’t like Ike? Ironically, his harshest critics consisted of 1950s prickly conservatives inside the Republican Party. Eisenhower lost his nice-guy warmth when naysayers confronted him. They bristled at his likability towards Democrats.
Ike took to heart a biblical warning he applied to the GOP’s right-wing: “ … Take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties … avoid them” (Romans 16:17). Chain-smoking Eisenhower smoked out his opposition and coughed at the GOP’s agenda. Biographer Jean Edward Smith identifies him as a “progressive conservative,” who respected FDR’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal and squared both political agendas with conciliatory legislation rival political parties approved.
Ideological Purity Virus
Those who didn’t like Ike infected the GOP with an ideological purity virus. They didn’t waver from wielding a big stick that thumped Democrats with congressional delay, deferral, default and acrimonious debate. These conservatives defined themselves by what they were adamantly against — not for.
Eisenhower lost patience. He excoriated GOP detractors: “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would never hear of that party again,” Ike wrote his brother Edgar. “There is a tiny splinter group that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L Hunt (and) a few other Texas millionaires. But there number is negligible, and they are stupid” (“Eisenhower in War and Peace”).
Evidently, stupidity possesses a half-life like plutonium. Neither dies. Substitute the Koch brothers for the Hunts from Texas. Their political cancer, which Ike feared, is spreading. The right-wing political agenda is predictable that made Eisenhower’s famous smile turn sour. Reduce taxes to squeeze government revenues. Then cry poor. In response, slash social programs that help the needy. Exploit white resentment that our country is no longer a “Christian” nation. Bait working class men that a lion’s share of government benefits goes to those in poverty. Always steer money towards national security.
Ike bucked this conservative agenda. He crossed the political aisle to get programs completed that benefited most citizens. He orchestrated huge civic projects, particularly in transportation. The opposition howled that such progress regressed into socialism. The “Ted Cruz” mentality of the 1950s groused against the federal government’s intrusive power.
Eisenhower soldiered on. His march across America is still stamped on commerce and travel. Biographer Smith recounts: “When the economy turned down after the Korean War, Eisenhower initiated the interstate highway program and constructed the St. Lawrence Seaway, not only revolutionizing the American transportation system, but opening the Great Lakes to ocean traffic. Neither program affected the federal budget. The interstate system — the cost of which eventually exceeded the total expenditures of the New Deal from 1933-1941 — was funded entirely by increased gasoline taxes, and the seaway through the sale of interest-bearing revenue bonds. The National Defense Education Act, which Eisenhower signed into law in 1958, broke the long-standing taboo against direct federal aid to education and has done more to change the face of American universities than any measure since the enactment of the GI Bill during World War II.”
Smooth Travels, Education
Any wonder why my father and his staunchly Republican clan supported Ike? This president made possible family overland trips in our station wagon on smooth highways, benefit because of an economic boost western Michigan received from Seaway traffic, and he paved the way for a GI with a sixth-grade education to send his son to school in Princeton.
Substitute the Affordable Care Act for the New Deal. The same ideological purists Ike shunned still wield power. Biographer Smith reminds us: “The GOP majority in the 83rd Congress (of the 1950s) seemed less interested in grappling with the problems of the day than in repudiating the work of Truman and Roosevelt. In the Senate, conservative Republicans had introduced no less than 107 constitutional amendments designed to repeal the New Deal.”
History on Repeat
Sounds like history repeats itself with the deluge of GOP bills designed to sweep away the Affordable Care Act.
During his presidency, Eisenhower lamented to his secretary Ann Whitman, “I don’t know why anyone should be a member of the Republican Party.”
Frustration mounted as right-wingers carped against his compromises with Democrats to get bi-partisan legislation passed. “The Republican Party must be known as a progressive organization, or it is sunk. I believe that so emphatically,” Eisenhower wrote, “that I think that far from appeasing or reasoning with the dyed-in-the-wool reactionary fringe, we should completely ignore it and when necessary, repudiate it.”
Every morning, I enter my Jefferson library/study and nod to Ike. He smiles back. We share GOP roots — of the 1950s.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.