(In celebration of Presidents’ Day, a column not about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln)
He’d been President for almost two years when I was born and he left office when I was barely six years old, so I have few first-hand memories of Dwight David Eisenhower.
But, like most Americans, I’ve always liked Ike. So I was thrilled that, on a car trip home from Colorado last summer, I was able to spend an entire morning at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas. The tour started in the visitor center
with a short movie about the 34th President. It then preceded to the charming two-story frame house where Ike and his five brothers grew up and where the extraordinarily conscientious tour guide made very, very sure that the handful of us listening to her canned speech didn’t touch anything or take indoor pictures or even think about setting foot in any room where we weren’t supposed to go.
Next stop was the museum, where a person so inclined could spend days. Then on to the Presidential Library, the first I ever visited, where there’s not a whole lot to see but where scholars from all over the world come to conduct research. Back out on the lawn, I snapped a quick photo of the eleven-foot bronze statue of General Eisenhower and then spent a quiet few minutes at the chapel where he, wife Mamie, and son Doud, who died of scarlet fever at the age of three, are buried. The tour was over.
Except, of course, for a quick stop in the gift shop, where I purchased some postcards and an I STILL LIKE IKE campaign button but resisted the urge to add yet another Elvis t-shirt to my collection.
On the long, long drive from central Kansas to middle Tennessee, I had plenty of time to mull over what I’d learned in Abilene and compare it with what I already
knew. Or at least thought I knew. I’d always thought of Eisenhower as an old man. After all, he was 62 years old when he first took office. Meaning that…yikes!!!…he wasn’t much older than I am now.
I knew, of course, that he was a World War II hero–the Supreme Allied Commander responsible for successfully executing D-Day, among other things—and that he was so popular after the war that both the Republican and Democratic parties wanted him as their candidate for President in 1952. What I didn’t know was that he chose the GOP because he believed no party should be in office for too long. Since the Democrats had held the White House for twenty years, Eisenhower thought it was time for a change.
The museum helped remind me that those who remember the 1950s as the “peaceful” decade are remembering wrong. The war in Korea was winding down just in time for trouble to begin stirring in Vietnam. The Supreme Court declared that separate schools were inherently unequal and Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, heightening racial tensions throughout the South. Americans wrung our hands in dismay as the Russians beat us into space and we wondered just how much of a problem Cuba would turn out to be.
But we also built interstate highways, proved that rock-and-roll is here to stay, and added two stars to the American flag when Alaska and Hawaii became states. And our wise and dignified Chief Executive watched over it all.
Even as a first grader, I was politically aware enough to know that Dwight D. Eisenhower was our President. I loved saying his name, which just so happens to be the only Presidential last name with four syllables. I even learned to spell it. And though my mother assured me repeatedly that no one know what God looks like, I couldn’t help but believe that he must look something like grandfatherly Ike.
A visit to Abilene, Kansas did nothing to change that opinion. If anything, it confirmed it. The more I learn about Ike, the more I like him. That’s why I chose to salute him as in this column as we prepare to celebrate Presidents’ Day.
(February 17, 2013)