Seven years ago this week, during one of Washington’s periodic partial government shutdowns — one that devolved into a game of chicken between the White House and Capitol Hill — the Obama administration sought to pressure Congress by closing access to national monuments.
Among the places barricaded to the public was the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. This was a chafe because there isn’t any admission or gates at that site, which is usually open at all hours: In other words, the government had to expend resources to close it. Those most frosted were the octogenarian World War II veterans who came to Washington on special tours, many of them precisely to see the monument constructed in homage to them and their comrades in arms.
As it happened, the men who stormed the beaches at Iwo Jima or scaled the cliffs at Normandy weren’t dissuaded by a few sawhorses put in their way by bureaucrats who’d never heard a shot fired in anger. The old warriors simply moved them out of the way and walked in. Displaying more common sense than usual, the U.S. Park Police stood aside.
As I wrote at the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose title in World War II was supreme allied commander, would have recognized the spunk and initiative shown by his former troops. The five-star general and 34th president of the United States was on my mind that morning because Oct. 14 is Ike’s birthday: He was born 130 years ago today.
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Dwight David Eisenhower came into the world on Oct. 14, 1890 near Abilene, Tex., and moved with his family as a young boy to Kansas. After graduating from West Point in 1915, where he was a baseball and football star, Eisenhower rose through the ranks to become the leader of the allied forces that invaded France in June 1944. Following the war, “Ike,” as his men called him with affection, commanded NATO forces in Europe and was president of Columbia University before entering politics.
In politics, as in the field of education, Ike started at the top. The presidency was the only office he ever sought. Because he’d served so long under President Franklin Roosevelt, some political professionals, including Harry Truman, assumed Eisenhower was a New Deal Democrat. They were wrong. For one thing, he was a fiscal conservative. Also, because he’d been an Army “lifer,” liberals feared he would prove to be a captive of the Pentagon — and a military adventurer. Wrong again. President Eisenhower kept the United States out of provocations in Hungary and the Middle East, warned the French about the pitfalls of engaging militarily in Vietnam, and in his farewell address cautioned Americans of the danger of the “military-industrial complex.”
Although he acknowledged that the exigencies of the Cold War required a standing army, Eisenhower alerted his countrymen to the costly implications of having a permanent military. In an early draft of the speech, he actually proposed the phrase “military-industrial-congressional” complex.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” the president said on Jan. 17, 1961, days before his successor was sworn in. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
It’s an oversimplification to think that Washington worked better in the 1950s, when three white men, all native or adopted Texans (Eisenhower, Sam Rayburn, and Lyndon Johnson), ran the government over their semi-regular Friday evening White House meetings, lubricated by bourbon and branch water. Yet it does seem that today’s political leaders could learn much from those men, who engaged in tough private negotiations — but never public name-calling.
Since I wrote about Eisenhower seven years ago today, a monument to him has been erected on the National Mall, far from the World War II Memorial. Fewer and fewer of the men who served under him in Europe in 1944 and 1945 are alive to visit it, but new generations of Americans will see a statue of a general who mingled among his troops on the eve of D-Day, listening to their concerns and bucking up their spirits. A second bronze statue depicts Eisenhower as president. A third, shows him as a Kansas teenager, sitting in a contemplative posture. The boyhood Eisenhower was the conception of architect Frank Gehry, whose original memorial design included only the boy. This struck many people, including some of Eisenhower’s heirs, as so ill-conceived that the memorial almost didn’t come to be built. So Gehry went back to the drawing board. Art-by-committee doesn’t always work, but this time it did.
And in the spirit of Ike’s birthday, and of the return of autumn athletics (even those without fans), let’s return briefly to a time, near the turn of the 19th century, when two boys in rural Kansas were idling away a summer afternoon fishing. As they contemplated the future while sitting on a riverbank, the two pals began talking about what they wanted to do when they grew up.
“I told him that I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner,” Dwight Eisenhower later recalled. “My friend said that he’d like to be president of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”