“It was more than a mistake,” Benjamin Disraeli said, “it was a blunder.”
“It was more than a mistake,” Benjamin Disraeli said, “it was a blunder.” So far blunder mars America’s 44th presidency. At Harvard, Barack Obama read Shakespeare’s “A little touch of Harry in the night.” Today, change we can believe in needs a little touch of Ike.
Ike was Dwight D. Eisenhower: West Point ’15, World War II supreme commander and 1953-61 president, deeming “the road to success down the middle.” He would have liked Obama’s “There are no red or blue, only united, states.” He might also ask if the new president meant a word of it.
“We won the election,” puffs Nancy Pelosi, writing Obama’s stimulus legislation, “so we wrote this bill.” Blunder, meet blunderbuss: Ike would be appalled.
In World War II, Eisenhower somehow kept Patton, Montgomery and MacArthur — “prima donnas,” he twitted — fighting the enemy, not one other. As president, he “got people together,” said Robert Dole: 1.5 percent inflation, first Civil Rights bill in 82 years, St. Lawrence Seaway, an Interstate Highway System, itself stimulus, changing America utterly and irreversibly.
By 1955, George Gallup said, 84 percent couldn’t find a single thing wrong with Ike: 60 percent of Democrats wanted the Republican as their nominee. “Never,” wrote Theodore H. White, “did the (day) shine fairer across a great nation than it did in the age of Eisenhower.” Peace and prosperity helped. What else forged Ike’s sun?
Unlike Obama, Ike’s lure stemmed little from rhetoric: talk, after all, being cheap. “Fracturing syntax,” mused George H.W. Bush, “he spoke like us,” being one of us. Obama comes from Indonesia via Harvard to Chicago politics. Ike came “from the heart of America (Abilene),” he said, having the “great and priceless privilege of growing up in a small town.”
Obama knows himself. Eisenhower knew us.
Ike became his kinder, gentler era: Zane Gray novels, TV Westerns, a love of golf turned national belly laugh. Vowing to gentle our coarser time, Obama could recall how Ike’s river ran through character: In hundreds of interviews, biographer Stephen Ambrose never heard one person catch Eisenhower in a lie. Obama might grasp how, to Eisenhower, attitude was a noun.
Ike “didn’t think of people who disagreed with him as being the enemy,” said his vice president, Richard Nixon, who did. “He thought, ‘They just don’t agree with me.’” By contrast, demonizing Republicans “for wanting to do nothing (actually, cut spending),” Obama says “nicer things,” notes Charles Krauthammer, about Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. White House “outreach” is window dressing: “killing them with kindness,” says an aide: talk unity, kneecap the GOP, and hope the media doesn’t squeal.
Three confirmed or would-be Cabinet members don’t pay their taxes. Another choice, Judd Gregg, withdraws after Obama hints of politicizing the 2010 Census. The candidate scored lobbyists. Lobbyists now stuff his White House. Trading united for blue states, the young president retreats to what Winston Churchill called a “terminological inexactitude”: truth what Obama says, when he says it: disposable, like a diaper.
If he wanted to be bipartisan, why tap überliberal Pelosi? What happened to axing “programs that don’t work”? They fill most of the “stimulus” bill’s $787 billion. According to Gallup, 65 percent wanted it junked or delarded. Good news: Obama’s approval rating tops 60 percent, many hoping the centrist candidate will re-emerge. Bad: Often a first impression sticks.
Obama may not care, his cupboard hardly bare. Hacks flack, a prostitute press slobbers, zealots cheer oratory as alien to reality as themselves. Obama speaks expertly. Like Ike, he thinks deliberately. (Read Michael Korda’s book on the supreme commander’s pre-D-Day year.) Better, Obama seems preternaturally cool. Ike exploded at a lousy 7-iron, a balky jeep ignition. No matter: He seldom blundered.
The new president’s start leaves many once burned, twice shy, unlikely to parrot his claim to change — or truth. After one fit of Ike temper, his mother told the then-10-year-old, “He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.” If Obama can conquer his own party, he might take the nation. Having blundered, he should try a little touch of Ike.
Curt Smith is a former speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush and author of 12 books. E-mail him at email@example.com.