December 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 8
In the spring of 1948, out of the service and still in my twenties, I was a graduate student at Columbia University. I was surprised one day to be called to report to the university provost, Albert C. Jacobs, in Low Memorial Library. He told me that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had agreed to be the university president and asked if I’d like to work for the new president and himself.
Thrilled, I began at once helping prepare plans for the general’s inauguration; the evening before the ceremony it was my duty to present a thousand guests to the General and Mrs. Eisenhower in the great domed expanse of the Low Library’s rotunda (I was especially pleased to be able to tell Mamie Eisenhower that, like her, I was Iowa born).
Inauguration Day was overcast, but just as President Eisenhower (we Columbians were the first to call Ike by this title) received the keys to the university, the clouds parted like those in an allegorical painting, a shaft of light sparked on the keys, and a gasping murmur rose from the twenty thousand guests crowded on the South Lawn. Mamie Eisenhower later said that she never forgot that happy augury.
The faculty oration at the inauguration was delivered by Robert Livingston Schuyler, who, as well as being a distinguished historian and the descendant of two distinguished families, was my mentor. Thus it was natural that he came to me to inquire if President Eisenhower might be willing to talk to his historiography class.
“Come to the office and ask,” I urged him, only to be chagrined when I saw him twice turned away by Maj. Robert Schulz, a strict aide whom Eisenhower had brought with him from the Army.
“I guess,” a disappointed Professor Schuyler said to me a few days later, “I won’t be able to invite President Eisenhower to my class.”
I had an idea. The president, I told him, left his office with military precision at noon sharp every day and headed down the steps in front of Low. It was a long flight of stairs. Why couldn’t Professor Schuyler contrive to meet him as he came out of Fayerweather Hall across the way? “Gordon, that’s a great idea!” Professor Schuyler exclaimed. “I’ll try it tomorrow.”
The next day I discreetly followed President Eisenhower out of his office and down the steps. Suddenly he stopped and called in a voice so strong it seemed to echo off Butler Library across the campus, “Professor Schuyler!” I froze several steps above, then heard him heartily go on. “I’ve been hoping to thank you for your wonderful address at my inauguration and ask you if there’s anything I could do for you.”
Schuyler then told Eisenhower he taught a large historiography class and asked if the president might come and speak to it. What about? Ike wanted to know. “Your favorite historians.”
Eisenhower did indeed come and, to everyone’s surprise, spoke with passion and deep knowledge about two of the college’s most illustrious former students, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
Five years after that memorable classroom session, during his first months in the White House, Eisenhower sent for John Foster Dulles, his Secretary of State, to ask his opinion on the Bricker Amendment, a move to curtail presidential foreign policy agreements that was then being debated. Dulles hedged a bit, and Eisenhower told him he’d do some homework that night and meet with him early the next morning. At the meeting Eisenhower said he’d reread The Federalist on the necessity for the President to have a strong role in foreign policy. Dulles stammered his amazement at the President’s familiarity with The Federalist and thereafter often discussed the work with him. Years later Eisenhower wrote with some amusement, “Dulles talked about The Federalist Papers as though he had begun their study in kindergarten.”
Only Professor Schuyler from the Columbia years would not have been surprised that Eisenhower kept a copy of The Federalist on his desk in the Oval Office. Indeed, certain detractors of Eisenhower’s intellect won’t believe it to this day.