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Eisenhower, the great forgotten Republican

Americans liked Ike. Canadians liked Ike. Everybody liked Ike. He was a war hero, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in the Second World War. He was one of the most successful of Republican presidents, winning two terms and leaving office with ratings high.

But Dwight Eisenhower faded from public memory. When election seasons rolled around, Republicans didn't talk about him much. He wasn't held up, as he should have been, as a model military man and political leader. In today's Republican primaries, where candidates appear so amateurish by comparison, he gets the odd mention from Newt Gingrich. But it's always Ronald Reagan's name that is held on high.

There are reasons for the dimming of Ike's legacy. He was too pragmatic for raw Republicanism and too honest, especially on the subject of the armaments industry. At the close of his presidency, he uttered three loaded words. Having said those words, he could never be regarded by his party in a heroic way.

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Eisenhower didn't become a Republican until 1952, the year he campaigned for the presidency. He had never been schooled on political partisanship. "My only appeal to you," he said during the campaign, "my only appeal to America … is to place loyalty to the country above loyalty to a political party." He forbade his staff to issue personal attacks against opponents. He was dismayed by the primal political instincts of his vice-president, Richard Nixon.

As described in a new book by Jim Newton, Eisenhower: The White House Years, Ike's philosophy of governance was to find "the middle way." It was a phrase he used often. He fought against excessive military spending and big, imprudent tax cuts. He rejected reports that exaggerated Soviet military strength from alarmists such as Paul Nitze. He turned back Pentagon pressure to go to war in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Ike was repelled by McCarthyism, although he didn't move against it as strongly as he should have. (Fortunately, there were others who did so – and with a touch of humour. When Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy fame was accused of being in the Commie camp, her husband, Desi Arnaz, was quick to respond. "Lucy is my favourite redhead," he said. "In fact, that's the only thing red about her – and even that's not legitimate.")

When Eisenhower visited Canada, thousands lined the streets to see him. He didn't know much about this country. Rather than worry about bilateral affairs, he preferred to spend his time on the golf course. (And who could blame him for that?) I've told the story of external minister Lester Pearson visiting him at the White House. Amazed that Ike hadn't even heard of a pressing Canadian issue, he muttered to an aide on the way out, "You'd think his caddie would have mentioned it to him."

Ike had his drawbacks. He was too slow to move on civil rights. In foreign affairs, as Mr. Newton notes, he was too enamoured of covert action of the type that overthrew, in 1952, a democratically elected regime in Iran.

But over all, his middle way was well favoured. Some still wonder whether Nixon would have won the 1960 election were it not for Ike's excessive candour. Asked to name an important decision his veep had participated in, Ike indelicately responded, "If you give me a week, I might think of one."

In his farewell speech, Eisenhower talked ominously about the emergence of a permanent arms industry, corporations whose livelihoods depended on war and threats of war. He then spoke the three words he would be most remembered for, a phrase that peaceniks would come to invoke: "military-industrial complex."

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They were prophetic words, the invasion of Iraq being the most recent example of threat inflation. Today, we witness Mitt Romney, the so-called moderate Republican candidate, claiming that America, despite defence outlays of $500-billion a year in excess of its closest rival, cannot afford cuts in defence spending.

That kind of rubbish is cheered on lustily by today's Republicans. It's no wonder that Ike isn't a hero to them. He made too much sense.

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