What Barack Obama Could Learn From Ike

I am old enough to remember President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man we all called “Ike”. 

He came to public attention in December of 1943 when President Roosevelt named him Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. 

He led the Allies at D-Day and in their successful recovery of Europe during World War Two. 

A very popular General, he was also a very popular President defeating Adlai Stevenson, the Governor of Illinois at the time and a popular man in his own right, in a 1952 landslide victory. 

Four years later in 1956, he repeated his landslide victory, once again over Stevenson, but by an even larger margin.

Among his many accomplishments, perhaps the greatest in terms of its socio-economic impact, was the creation of America’s Interstate Highway System. 

He spent his later years as a well-respected man who put politics aside.  Although he was always available by phone to his successor, John F. Kennedy, whenever his advice was requested, as it was from time to time, he kept that fact to himself.

As President, Ike was frequently criticised by his political opponents for “playing too much golf” and not being the intellectual that Adlai Stevenson was.  In a much milder way, he received criticism similar to that directed toward George W. Bush, but his stature and accomplishments were so much greater than Bush’s that this had little effect.  However, it would have been fair to say that he was not seen as the kind of President who willingly create controversy or criticise those who supported him when he felt they were wrong.

So it was that Ike’s “farewell address” to the American people as he was about to hand over the Oval office to JFK was not expected to be at all provocative, quite the contrary.  Perhaps a nice “thank you” as he stepped down, but nothing to remember.  Oh, how wrong they were.  On January 17 of this year, it will be the 50th anniversary of that farewell address.  Half a century ago, what could a retiring 70-year-old man, never known for profound statements, say that could have any meaning today?  Let’s take a look at a couple examples.

This man who had served in the American military all his life and at its highest ranks, this man who had received the support of American industry in both his campaigns, had this to say:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defence; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defence establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence–economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognise the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

This man who knew well the great advantages provided him as a military and political leader by the science and technology communities has this to say:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present–and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Wow.  Those were thoughtful statements, but they were also very powerful statements and came completely as a surprise.  They were powerful then and they still hold great power today.

If I were speaking with President Obama, I would tell him that he is a very well-educated and intelligent man and I have no doubt that his “farewell address”, whether that comes in two years or six, will be carefully listened to with far greater expectations than President Eisenhower’s 50 years ago.  I would tell him what he already knows in as polite a manner as possible: his first two years have failed him, his nation, and the world.  I would tell him that this is indeed a period of great crisis demanding great leadership.  He needs to speak as plainly and honestly as Ike once spoke, but he cannot wait until his departure from the White House.  We cannot wait for that and he must not wait for that for everyone’s sake.  I would not suggest a “farewell address” as that is clearly not appropriate, but a similar address to the American people at the completion of half a term that has been as disappointing as this one is more than in order, it is critical.

We do not need a President who is seen as distant and aloof.  We do not need any more photos taken on basketball courts or walking in the surf.  We need a President of the United States of America to sit before us, look us in the eye, and tell us what he has learned, where he wants to lead us, how he plans to get there, and why it is important that we support him. 

Barack Obama is not the first American President to be sharply criticised and he will not be the last.  But one thing has seemed clear to me throughout my lifetime.  Americans do respect and honour the Presidency, if not always the man (and some day, woman) who holds the office temporarily.  We want to be led and we respect those who lead, whether their name is Roosevelt or Reagan, but we also require respect in return.  Speaking to us plainly and honestly in a time of crisis, focusing clearly on our fears and needs, is critical to that respect.

I would finish my conversation with President Obama by suggesting he read President Eisenhower’s address and consider how he might provide something as insightful and useful to us today, not two years from today, not six years from today, but today.

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