What Joe Can Learn From IkeRoundup
tags: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Joe Biden, 2020 Election
TED WIDMER is a distinguished lecturer at Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. His most recent book is Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.
Many Americans remember the 1950s as a banal time of sock hops and drive-ins, but the decade began badly, with a nasty war in Korea, constant friction with China and Russia, and bitter sniping between Republicans and Democrats, who were no longer interested in the consensus that had led America to victory in World War II. In the final two years of Harry Truman’s presidency, the nation’s capital turned angry and dysfunctional. Congress and the White House were at odds; financial scandals plagued the administration; and an ugly new politics of bullying, perfected by Repulican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, was rising quickly.
McCarthy’s favorite target was the State Department, where he claimed to know of more than 50 “card-carrying Communists.” As the Red Scare deepened, McCarthy and his allies also pursued an aggressive “Lavender Scare,” concentrating on public servants who were gay in a time that was deeply closeted. Hundreds resigned or were fired.
This was the chaotic state of the country in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower decided to run for president. Typically, presidential campaigns are all about noise and change, but Eisenhower instinctively understood how deeply Americans wanted to calm down and get back to normal, and his intuition proved to be correct. As Joe Biden finishes up the last few weeks of his campaign, in a country marred by hyperpartisanship and disorder, he could do worse than to study the quiet way Eisenhower helped his party to win.
Eisenhower was barely a politician as the year began—he was known to millions, of course, as the hero of D-Day, but his political talents were not well understood. People were not even certain that he was a Republican (Democrats were also approaching him to run). But he declared his affiliation with the GOP, and early in 1952 began to run in earnest.
To unite the country, Eisenhower first had to bring together his own party, which was no simple matter. A deeply conservative Ohio senator, Robert Taft, wanted the nomination for himself. “Mr. Republican,” as Taft was known, held important cards as a party insider, but he lacked charisma, and his cranky isolationism put him at odds with the party’s more moderate wing, centered in New York and New England. These East Coast Republicans gravitated naturally to Eisenhower, whose sparkling résumé included stints as the president of Columbia University and as NATO’s supreme commander.
No one would call Eisenhower a scintillating speaker, and he looked older than his 62 years. But he understood that less could be more, and his calming speeches stood in sober contrast to the heated rhetoric of the times.
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