By Tom Driscoll
It's hard not to make the comparisons. Especially when we take measure of our presidents, it's popular sport to bring out our heroes of bygone days and pine for those lost qualities, or conversely to caution and point to the past follies of those history has come to judge harshly. We bring out the vilified and the embodiments of virtue and compare and contrast for the sake of argument.
It's all good fun and the politicians who end up serving in the office really have no room to complain. They invite the comparisons themselves when they're running for office. Who can forget Dan Quayle comparing himself to JFK? Or the candidate Obama giving the Democratic electorate fits when, during the primary campaign no less, he compared the "transformational" potential for his presidency with both JFK's and Ronald Reagan's (and intimated that this comparison was in some way a good thing)?
So here we are a couple years in with the current occupant of The White House and of course the sport continues. I don't think we've yet seen the "transformation" Obama was hoping for when he alluded to JFK and The Gipper back in the day (but then again, I'm not sure we were real time aware of the mythic national transformations back in the early 60's or in the 1980's either). With the economy's struggles as they've been and continue to be, there have been wishful and dread-filled comparisons made with FDR (depending on which side of the partisan divide you live on). The list goes on from there, from Abraham Lincoln to Jimmy Carter. There's even those who would cross the pond and cite Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill.
We don't yet have the benefit of history's perspective to judge this presidency and these times. Those comparisons this president of ours might aspire to (or those that his detractors might tar him with) probably cannot be definitively drawn right yet. But as I was reading the news this morning (and thought back on an exchange we had going here on this blog) a parallel occurred to me, as much about circumstance as it is about character, and it might be an apt one whether any of us like it or not (including the President).
In this game of comparisons: I like Ike.
And here's where I see some of the parallel. Like Obama, Eisenhower inherited a war effort the country was sick and tired of and yet wasn't quite ready to relinquish, for Ike it was Korea. Then as now the frustration with bloodshed mounted, but also mounting was a climate of fear and hysteria. The contradictory collective call we made as a country was to have the war over, but to have it won decisively in the terms of a larger ideological struggle, and without further cost in blood or treasure.
Neat trick... Sound familiar?
And what is the path in such a landscape?
Look back on Eisenhower's presidency and you can find that list of cautionary failures, perhaps, but also just possibly some noteworthy accomplishment in the form of disasters averted. I know this might exasperate folks who prefer clear cut saints and sinners, but I think you can see the qualities and the failings as of the same cloth.
Eisenhower went to Korea as he promised he would, and the major fighting was brought to close, but the peace brought home was that of a wary stalemate. Under his watch the worst of the Red Scare and the hysteria of McCarthyism would finally begin to fade on the home front (though through no memorable effort on his part). The Cold War would become a concerted undertaking under his leadership, we can criticize Eisenhower for that, but we can also credit him for averting far worse, as he reined in the more bellicose members of his own political party, not to mention his own military leadership; and he skillfully handled the diplomacy of confronting both our enemies and our allies in the Suez Crisis.
In terms of domestic policy, perhaps the most important thing Ike did is what he did not do. He resisted the political appeal of a sharp pendulum swing back against New Deal Era programs like Social Security and helped solidify the consensus surrounding them.
For all the Republican exuberance that must have accompanied the election of their first president to office in a generation in 1952, if one is to credit Eisenhower's presidency, it can't be for what it radically and dramatically transformed. Rather the legacy is one of political caution, deliberate care and transition.
Here these years later we have another president, professing to represent a call for profound change, but doing so (somewhat exasperatingly) as a professor would —deliberatively right up to the ragged edge of equivocation. Seeking consensus and a balanced compromise (even when none is offered from the opposing view). This can be seen as a self effacing weakness or sage and savvy balance, at different times from either side of the political divide we enjoy at a given moment. Prudent patience and pragmatism or perilous indecision and pointless wishful thinking. We can each of us have our own opinions, but they won't change the facts of character and circumstance.
And history will be the judge, of not just this president but of his times as well, whether we like it or not.