Who is the best president of our lifetime?

A topic of conversation at a few recent dinner parties has been picking the best president of our lifetimes. The guests have mostly been in their fifties or sixties and have chosen to limit the debate to the presidents who have served since 1952, thus excluding FDR and Truman. The guests evidence a pronounced progressive bent. When pushed to pick, most struggle with their choice.  Of the thirty or so ballots cast at these dinners, the president with the most votes is Lyndon Johnson, although everyone who votes for him feels obliged to offer an explanation about how they could possibly overlook his escalation of the war in Vietnam. Very few dinner guests voted for the president ranked highest in this group by most surveys of historians—Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican. 

I was born in the Eisenhower years but have always had a rather murky sense of his political and military leadership. Over this past holiday I read Jean Edward Smith’s biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace

I enjoyed the book, but finished it with less insight into Eisenhower than I would have expected after 766 pages. Smith seems to anticipate that Eisenhower’s elusive qualities might leave the reader feeling a bit empty. He closes his book with the story of how David Eisenhower asked his grandmother Mamie whether she felt she had really known Dwight David Eisenhower. “I’m not sure anyone did,” Mamie replied.

The book made me nostalgic for the times when there were middle-of-the-road Republicans. It also made me ponder the costs to the country of the Republican Party’s conversion to what is often mistakenly called “conservatism”, rather than the far more accurate adjectives “extremist” or “radical.”

Eisenhower was not ideological. If you had to describe him in such terms you might call him a progressive conservative, a label with which I imagine he would be comfortable.

Coming to power just a few years after the New Deal reforms, he had no desire to roll back any of them. In most ways he was remarkably non-political. As Smith points out, not one of his original cabinet appointees was a professional politician.

As president he often got more support from Democrats than Republicans in Congress, and although he was slow to speak out against them, he detested Joseph McCarthy and his ilk. He opposed multiple efforts by the military or others to get the U.S. into a war during his presidency, although he did support several misguided covert actions. He is the only president of the 20th century to preside over eight years of peace and prosperity.

Perhaps Eisenhower’s three most important legacies are the interstate highway system, one of the largest public works projects in U.S. history; his five Supreme Court appointments, including four justices who played crucial roles on the interventionist Warren Court - Earl Warren, Potter Stewart, John Marshall Harlan and William Brennan; and the “farewell address” that he gave at the end of his presidency. That speech, which he worked on for over a month, warned of the dangers of changes in the country due to what he called the emerging “military industrial complex.”

Due to Cold War tensions, he said that “we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions…three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend more on military security than the net income of all United States corporations.”

He pointed out that this was new to the American experience and warned that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”    

Eisenhower called his moderate politics “Modern Republicanism.” Later it came to be called Rockefeller Republicanism after New York governor and presidential hopeful Nelson Rockefeller.

It is difficult to remember now that there was a vibrant liberal and moderate wing of the Republican Party well into the early 1980’s. Progressive Republicans were especially prominent in the U.S. Senate where officials such as George Aiken of Vermont, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Jacob Javits of New York, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Charles Percy of Illinois, Charles Mathias of Maryland and Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (the first popularly elected African-American senator) spoke up for civil rights, anti-poverty programs and against the war in Vietnam. Proportionally more Republicans voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act than Democrats.

There is an important story to be told here. (I have not read it yet but reviewers say that Geoffrey Kabaservice tells this story well in his recent Rule and Ruin. The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party: From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.)

When Eisenhower left the White House in 1961, he was as popular as when he entered it eight years earlier. It is unlikely that anyone that day foresaw that fifty years later, almost all “Eisenhower Republicans” would have been run out of the Republican Party.

To those of us living in the new dynamic, one thing is apparent: the loss of such figures dramatically reduces the problem-solving capacity of American democracy.

For democratic politics to work there need to be leaders willing to put “getting critical tasks accomplished” above both partisanship and ideology. Such leaders are in short supply today, and, consequentially, we are unable to grapple with our most pressing problems.

It is worth remembering that it was not always that way. Eisenhower may not appeal much to those of us desirous of dramatic calls to action. But his quiet, stable, seasoned leadership and willingness to strive for consensus on what might move us forward arguably makes him the most successful president of the last half century.