He Got the Big Things Right

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, September 1959

When the youngest man to be elected president of the United States was inaugurated in 1961, the contrast with his predecessor could hardly have been greater, and John F. Kennedy made the most of it. “Let the word go forth,” he said grandly at his inaugural, “…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” The Harvard graduate from Massachusetts had no great achievements to his name but he had a thick head of hair the color of chestnuts, brainy friends who played vigorous touch football, an activist international agenda, and a stylish wife with a soft voice who was already planning to bring high-end decorators and artists of international repute to the White House. Kennedy intended to move boldly where his predecessor had been watchful and slow.

The man Kennedy replaced was seventy and none too robust. He had suffered a heart attack and a mild stroke in office, along with other ailments, and was notorious for losing himself in a tangle of words when addressing sticky questions. Dwight David Eisenhower won deathless fame as commander of the 1944 invasion of France that helped to end World War II in Europe, but once out of uniform genial blandness seemed to settle over the man, called Ike since youth. His bald pate and broad smile gave him an amiable, grandfatherly air. His tastes matched those of a generation winding down. He got up early and went to bed early. In the White House he and his wife Mamie frequently had dinner together alone in front of the TV. Ike’s favorite movie was Angels in the Outfield, a sentimental baseball film of 1951. Close seconds were the western films High Noon of 1952, in which the town marshal faces down four men come to kill him, and The Big Country, in which a retired sea captain brings peace to feuding ranch families.

Ike watched High Noon three times and The Big Country four times. In the audience at one showing of the latter was the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, come to the US to argue for sweet reason in dealing with Khrushchev over Berlin. Macmillan hated The Big Country. “It lasted three hours!” he protested in his diary. “It was inconceivably banal.” Gregory Peck turned the other cheek for most of the film but a moment came when he had to fight. That, roughly, was what the president had been telling Macmillan all day. Macmillan was reluctant to push the Russians over Berlin; Eisenhower felt a line had to be drawn clearly before the talking could begin.

Eisenhower came by his love of westerns naturally. He considered Abilene, Kansas, his hometown, because that’s where he lived longest as a child and where he graduated from high school. “Now…

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