In the course
of six decades -- not even the lifetime of our current president
-- no one has been the subject of revisionism among historians
and re-envisioning among members of the public as much as Eisenhower.
Harry Truman, who preceded him and who had little regard for his
successor, is remarkable in that, in the nation's memory and on
its bookshelves, his profile has been dramatically transformed.
But Eisenhower is even more remarkable. He's in his second transformation.
Now the nation
is preparing to make its latest view of Eisenhower -- architect
of D-Day and Allied triumph in Europe in World War II, supreme
commander of NATO in its important early years, 34th president
of the United States -- permanent. The other day the National
Capital Memorial Advisory Commission approved a memorial for Eisenhower
But it isn't
just the fact that the memorial was approved that is striking.
It is also the location of the plaza-style memorial: a four-acre
site that gives Eisenhower a presence in the capital roughly commensurate
with that of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln
and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
is still far from reality. There is no design, no agreement on
the content of the memorial, and, the site being Washington, other
advisory groups must be consulted. Eisenhower was never the master
of the aphorism, but he would have appreciated this one: Even
when something seems settled in Washington, it's not really settled.
will be a memorial, and it will almost certainly be a fanfare
for the common man, which is what Eisenhower was in the best American
sense, and also in some ways was the mark of his leadership. For
it was a common man (though one of uncommon intelligence and valor,
and of course with a smile of uncommon warmth) who, in what Henry
A. Wallace called the century of the common man, mobilized common
men by the millions to recapture Europe from the Nazis and, in
the decade that followed, to preserve Europe from the Soviets.
we get more and more presidents," says Michael Birkner, a
Gettysburg College historian who has written a short biography
of Eisenhower and is finishing a book called "Electing Ike,"
"Eisenhower looks better and better."
The odd thing
about this memorial is the odd thing about the Lincoln Memorial.
Like Lincoln, Eisenhower wouldn't have wanted it. (FDR didn't
want one, either, thinking that a stone slab in the capital would
do, but the grateful Americans who followed him disagreed, and
won the argument.) Eisenhower was awed by, and proud of, the museum
that was built in his hometown of Abilene, Kan., after the war,
and, eventually, pleased by the presidential library that went
up at Southeast Fourth Street hard by the Eisenhower family home.
He had a hand in designing the Place of Meditation, where he,
his wife Mamie and their first son are buried. To him, that was
a sacred place.
a good argument to be made that the greatest monument to Eisenhower
is, in the felicitous phrase that oftentimes crops up in social
commentary, the way we live today. We live in freedom -- a special
sort of freedom from want and from oppression. Europe is free
in the way the term was defined a half-century ago: It has a bustling
market system and, by and large, freely elected governments that
for the most part respect basic human rights and freedoms.
Most of all,
the Cold War stayed cold throughout most of the Eisenhower years
and into the years of four presidents who served along with him
in World War II: John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R.
Ford and George H.W. Bush.
The war made
Eisenhower, and -- like the Civil War before it, which produced
five of the seven presidents who followed Lincoln -- it made his
successors, shaped their view of the world, defined for them the
role America should play in it. (In her intimidating but quietly
inspiring new volume on Abraham Lincoln, "Team of Rivals,"
Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of
war, saying: "You see in these armies the foundation of our
Republic -- our future railway managers, congressmen, bank presidents,
senators, manufacturers, judges, governors, and diplomats; yes,
and not less than half a dozen presidents." He was close.)
and commentators will disagree about Eisenhower's legacy. They
will ask whether he might have been more aggressive in battling
racism, or whether he might have taken on Sen. Joseph McCarthy
of Wisconsin earlier and with more fervor, or whether he might
have hesitated to send American troops to Vietnam, or even whether
he might have handled the rebellion in Cuba differently. These
are big questions, and legitimate ones, which is why there never
will be an end to history, even if the phrase is a beguiling one.
these (and, alas, columns like these) always have a lesson, and
this one is no exception. Today's moral, for presidents present
and future, is this: Don't worry about your legacy. Posterity
has a mind of its own.
don't get to control how they're regarded," says Richard
Norton Smith, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential
Library and Museum and former director of the Eisenhower Presidential
Library and Museum. "It's a cautionary lesson for presidents
who think they can shape how posterity sees them. You can't even
control whether somebody builds a monument for you."
would have liked the first part, for unlike Bill Clinton and George
W. Bush, he was confident in history's verdict and didn't feel
his legacy needed a helpful nudge. Chances are Eisenhower would
be reconciled to the second part, for though he was too modest
to think he should stand with Washington and Jefferson and the
other icons of America, it may be that very modesty that assured
that he will.