Ross Douthat: The Greatness of Ike





Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.

...In a 2011 Gallup poll on the greatest president, Eisenhower came in a lame 12th, in a tie with Jimmy Carter. He performs solidly in scholarly surveys, but he’s frequently ranked behind his prominent 20th-century rivals.

In part, this underestimation is a result of the political persona Eisenhower cultivated — an amiable, grandfatherly facade that concealed a ruthless master politician. In part, it reflects the fact that his presidency has always lacked an ideological cheering section. Liberals (who preferred Adlai Stevenson) generally remember the Eisenhower administration as a parenthesis between heroic Democratic epochs, while conservatives (who favored Robert Taft) recall a holding pattern before their Goldwater-to-Reagan ascent.

But ultimately Eisenhower is underrated because his White House leadership didn’t fit the template of “greatness” that too many Americans pine for from their presidents. He was not a man for grand projects, bold crusades or world-historical gambles. There was no “Ike revolution” in American politics, no Eisen-mania among activists and intellectuals, no Eisenhower realignment.

Instead, his greatness was manifested in the crises he defused and the mistakes he did not make. He did not create unaffordable entitlement programs, embrace implausible economic theories, or hand on unsustainable deficits to his successors. He ended a stalemated conflict in Korea, kept America out of war in Southeast Asia, and avoided the kind of nuclear brinkmanship that his feckless successor stumbled into. He did not allow a series of Middle Eastern crises to draw American into an Iraq-style intervention. He did not risk his presidency with third-rate burglaries or sexual adventurism. He was decisive when necessary, but his successes — prosperity, peace, steady progress on civil rights — were just as often the fruit of strategic caution and masterly inaction....




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