Forty Years Later, Ike’s Words Resonate

Bill Clinton has followed the tradition of most two-term

Presidents by wishing us farewell. But now that the Celebrity Presidency has

replaced the Imperial Presidency, a Presidential farewell address seems as

anachronistic as a horse-and-buggy ride down Pennsylvania Avenue. John Quincy

Adams said there is nothing so pathetic as an ex-President; Mr. Clinton very

likely will prove that there is nothing so ubiquitous.

George Washington bequeathed the farewell address, and its

mandatory lofty view, to the nation. Less successfully, Andrew Jackson used his

farewell address to inveigh against the pernicious influence of paper money.

(“The paper system being founded on public confidence and having of itself no

intrinsic value, it is liable to great and sudden fluctuations, thereby

rendering property insecure and the waves of labor unsteady …” You said it,

brother.)

The great farewell address of the American Century came from

the most unlikely source, about a most unlikely topic. Dwight Eisenhower

delivered his last speech as President 40 years ago, on Jan. 17, 1961. In it,

the supreme commander of one of the greatest armies in human history famously

condemned the power of something he called “the military-industrial complex.”

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a

large arms industry is new in the American experience,” Ike said. “The total

influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every statehouse …

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of

unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial

complex.” There are Americans of a certain age (the columnist will pause here

to clear his throat) who were astonished to learn in, say, 1972, that General

Eisenhower himself, and not Tom Hayden or Daniel Berrigan, had coined the memorable

phrase.

To mark the anniversary of Eisenhower’s speech, a collection

of business leaders, liberal thinkers and assorted Village characters gathered

in the New School’s Tischman Auditorium on Jan. 17 to discuss and indeed to

celebrate the wisdom of, yes, Dwight Eisenhower. The audience and a panel of

authors and scholars winced through a video of Ike’s speech, delivered in the

unpracticed staccato of the radio age and marred by a combination of bland

delivery and verbal gaffes. There was, however, no denying the power of his

words, and there was no sense that an aging, tired, easily manipulated Ike was

simply spouting lines handed to him by a scheming pinko speechwriter.

The ensuring panel discussion proved lively, although

historian Douglas Brinkley’s lighter-than-air presentation suggested the

pitfalls that await scholars yearning to be media celebrities. More provocative

was a long exposition by Blanche Wiesen Cook, who wrote a book called The Declassified

Eisenhower and is writing a

multi-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Ms. Cook began her presentation by

asserting that she was going to give a political speech because, well, that’s

what she does. Having prepared her audience, she used her time to assail,

implicitly and at times explicitly, the new Bush administration. This was, she

said, “the meanest moment” in American history “since slavery.” The assertion

was intemperate, historically ridiculous (meaner than the Gilded Age? Meaner

than 1896, the year of Plessy v. Ferguson ?

Meaner than the long night of Jim Crow?) and inappropriate for the occasion,

but not particularly astonishing given the tenor of today’s made-for-tabloid-TV

political rhetoric. When she returned to the topic at hand, Dwight Eisenhower,

she blurted out that Ike may have been the true heir of Eleanor Roosevelt’s

domestic policies. She confessed that she hadn’t thought the idea through, and

based on the reaction of some rather learned people in the audience, she ought

to.

Surely, though, Ike’s

farewell speech and his equally emphatic “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953 (“Every

gun that is fired … signifies … a theft from those who hunger….”) offer a

glimpse of a man more complex, and indeed more liberal, than his popular image.

That he would be celebrated at the New School, in the heart of the Village, by

Pentagon critics like Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, would have been

unthinkable a quarter-century ago; now, such a tribute seems appropriate and,

indeed, broad-minded (he was, after all, a Republican).

No more than Eisenhower

himself, reasonable (even sensible) critics of defense spending have no wish to

see America disarmed or disillusioned soldiers fleeing the ranks for want of

decent pay. The question, raised sporadically at the New School panel, is of

priorities: Is, for example, the V-22 Osprey aircraft necessary for the

national defense, or is it little more than welfare for well-connected defense

contractors?

Had Eisenhower lived to

see the corporatizing of campaign finance and the not coincidental size of our

post-Cold War defense budget, he very likely would conclude that his farewell

address has been forgotten.

As for what Eleanor Roosevelt might make of some revisionist

Eisenhower scholarship-well, perhaps it’s best not to dwell on idle chatter.