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By The President Himself

May 2024
4min read

Indeed, the exact picture may lie forever out of our reach. Even the searching portrayal of television can hardly remove the veil; perhaps the Presidency must always hide the man. No President was ever subjected to such intense, intimate, friendly portrayal as John F. Kennedy received during the weekend following his assassination—and yet in the end we really know just about what we had known before. We did come to learn a good deal about ourselves, and the knowledge undoubtedly was good for us, but our picture of Mr. Kennedy remains just what it always was, ennobled by the memory of solemn ceremonies, flagdraped casket, and immense silent crowds, but still essentially unchanged. Perhaps any man who lives in the White House inevitably steps just a little out of clear focus.

Even the man who has himself been a President cannot always paint a clear portrait. A man who survives his time in the White House and sits down in the pleasant twilight of life to tell what he did and what he meant can fail just as the cameras of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner failed.

One man who lived in the White House in time of immense crisis was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won in the hearts of the people a place almost as warm and abiding as Lincoln’s. Now General Eisenhower has given us his own portrayal of his career as President, and his new book, Mandate for Change , is oddly similar to this book of Lincoln pictures: interesting, heart-warming, and somewhat baffling.

Undertaking to tell us all, General Eisenhower actually tells us very little. He describes, to be sure, the acts he did in order to get into the White House, and he goes into detail on the acts done after he got there, and to the best of his ability, presumably, he tells us what was on his mind when he did these things and how it all looks to him now that he is the squire of sunny acres at Gettysburg. Yet something is missing. It is as if General Eisenhower did what Mrs. Lincoln said that earlier President did: he put on his photographer’s face when he got into the studio. Out of it we get an excellent picture of a man deservedly admired and revered, but we retain the haunting feeling that somewhere, somehow, an essential part of the picture got left out.

Here was a man, clearly, who knew how to be tough, a man used to command who could be ruthless, a leader who hewed to a chosen line so tenaciously that the country found itself following without quite understanding what had happened to it. Taking office as the leader of the political opposition, he managed to conserve most of the important things built by the men he had opposed—which is to say that he clung to collective security, NATO, the Marshall Plan, the concept of the United Nations as a force for peace, the broad idea of firmness in defense of America’s vital interests which could still go hand in hand with a determination to keep the world from erupting into a new war. He took the country with him on these matters, and the danger that a resurgence of old-time isolationism might cause us to repeat the mistakes of the 1920’s was averted. Obviously, it took a good man to do this, and it took some struggles.

Mandate for Change, 1953–1956 , by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Doubleday & Company. 650 pp. $6.95.

Yet as we read about all of this we get the odd feeling that the General was nothing more than a friendly, kindly man who simply followed his country’s conscience without kicking anyone in the shins or stirring up any particular antagonisms. Obviously, this picture is as misleading as the comparable picture of the gentle, compassionate, always kindly Lincoln.

As President, he exercised the virtue of restraint. Given the circumstances under which he took office, this was wise and proper. But now, with office behind him, with no obligation upon him except to speak his own mind, the virtue of restraint is still dominant. General Eisenhower rarely lets us see the man who held the presidential office. In speaking of the Quemoy-Matsu problem, during which his administration met and passed a test which might easily have led to an all-out war, he remarks: “The hard way is to have the courage to be patient.” True enough: but it would be interesting now to know just whom he had to be most patient with, and what he thought about the people involved, and how he sustained himself in his exercise of patience. This sort of thing we do not get.

Any man, obviously, whether he is a former President or a man who once served as county commissioner, is entitled to write his memoirs in his own way, and it is hardly fair to quarrel with him for the things he refuses to say. But Mandate for Change remains singularly like Lincoln in Photographs . It tells us some things we did not know, casts a bit of light here and there on matters not previously illuminated, and presents a series of fascinating first-hand portraits; yet somehow it leaves us with the feeling that we still do not quite have the full picture. The live, passionate, interesting man who was President during those fateful years remains behind a mist of vague generalities and happy expressions of good feeling for almost everybody.

Concluding his summary of the achievements of his first term, General Eisenhower writes:

“We had converted the United States of America from a nation at war to a nation at peace, productive and happy. We had wrought the giant military structures which, coiled for war, would safeguard that peace. We had ringed the globe by signed agreements with our allies. And hour by hour we had made clear to friend and foe our determination to safeguard freedom in those areas where freedom was prized, and we had given hope for a better life to many millions who, unless backed by our strength, would almost certainly lose the freedom and economic opportunities that they now could devote their full energies to achieve.”

That statement, which fairly well stands the test of comparison with the record, is a statement of genuine achievement not easily gained. But it cannot all have been done in an atmosphere of sweetness, light, and good-fellowship. Telling about it, the General somehow donned his photographer’s face. We miss the sense of strain, struggle, and devotion that undoubtedly lay back of the achievement.

It really is hard to get a truly realistic portrait of a President.

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