Barack Obama has many qualities, but humility doesn’t appear to be one of them. During his first term, he often came across as cocky or crotchety about getting his way. Even when he signaled a willingness to meet his opponents halfway, he could seem peevish. After he won reelection, he seemed to take his victory as a personal vindication, not as a chance to come together.
If Obama has appeared self-involved, he’s hardly exceptional for his time. He grew up in the 1970s, the so-called Me Decade that produced parents and teachers who—like the mythical but all too real residents of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon—believed that all children were above average. (Surveys show that American students lag behind those of many nations at math and science but rank number one in self-esteem.) Any honest accounting of modern popular culture must conclude that old-time virtues of humility and self-effacement have been eclipsed by the cult of celebrity, by personal “branding” and showing off on Facebook.
Obama may have to change his tone in the years ahead. If history is a guide, he could be truly humbled by the curse that has afflicted all two-term Presidents back to Dwight Eisenhower, more than a half century ago.
In theory, a second-term President is free to be bold, to rise above partisanship. He doesn’t have to worry about reelection, only about his place in history. He can, it is hoped, do the Right Thing. In practice, second terms have run the gamut from disappointment to disaster: After Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were reelected, they all were dogged by failed policies and/or personal scandal.
If Obama wishes to avoid such a fate, he might take a page from Eisenhower. By showing modesty and restraint, by keeping his ego in check and working behind the scenes, Ike was able to accomplish a great deal—keeping the peace, securing a strong economy, advancing civil rights—even if he didn’t get much credit for his achievements at the time.
True, Ike didn’t exactly glory in his second term. His approval rating, which had floated around 70 percent, dropped close to 50 percent in 1958, some 18 months after his landslide reelection. The Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957, and Americans were shocked and frightened that the Kremlin might now have rockets powerful enough to rain down nuclear bombs from space. Eisenhower was under tremendous political pressure to do something—to spend more on rockets and missiles and to stand up to Communist aggression wherever it occurred around the world.
Through it all, Ike kept his cool. Even though he was mocked in the press for playing golf while the West seemed to be falling behind in the arms race, he refused to respond to the hysteria. As he had all along, he avoided small wars that could lead to big ones, instead bluffing his way through standoffs against the Communists in Berlin and off the Chinese coast. And while he spent more on advanced weapons systems such as the Navy’s Polaris submarine, he knew that the Soviet missile capacity was hyped, and he actually reduced defense spending over his eight years in office.
Eisenhower was a balanced-budget man—he believed that long-term security came from not spending or taxing too much, and he was willing to put the country through a brief recession in 1957-58 rather than succumb to the temptations of inflation that later seduced Johnson and Nixon in their second terms.
Eisenhower’s legacy: a time of peace and prosperity. If the 1950s now seem a little boring, it’s partly because Ike made them so.
Among Eisenhower’s greatest virtues were patience and self-discipline. Of course, he had a huge ego—he couldn’t have become Supreme Allied Commander in World War II without a healthy self-regard. But as he once said, he succeeded by hiding his ambition and his intelligence.
Ike could be vain: He used a sunlamp to stay “ruddy” in winter and dressed impeccably, usually in suits he received for free from admirers. He designed his own uniform, including the short-waisted Eisenhower jacket, for reasons that reveal his canny self-deprecation. He didn’t want to give the false impression that he was a warrior on the front lines and was almost never photographed wearing a helmet or combat gear in World War II. On the other hand, he knew that the smart jacket showed off his athletic build. Unlike conspicuously medaled modern generals, he wore few decorations—but then again, he didn’t need to.
Ike is remembered for mangling his syntax at press conferences. Forgotten is the fact that he had these briefings more often than any other President: about every other week. He could play dumb when he needed to. During a crisis with Red China in 1955, his advisers warned him to be very careful about what he said to the reporters. “Oh, don’t worry,” the President said. “I’ll just confuse them.” His private memos, it should be noted, were always clear and to the point.
Eisenhower was endlessly patient. He never decided anything before he had to, and he rarely telegraphed a decision. He was human, of course, and his temper could flare. He tried to use golf to relax, with mixed success. In April 1959, during the debate over whether the US would fly the U-2 spy plane over Russia, Eisenhower threw a golf club at his doctor, Howard Snyder, when Snyder tried to cheer the President on after he muffed a shot out of a bunker. But Ike’s eruptions always passed and he never bullied anyone. His tantrums were hidden from the public, who saw only the genial, smiling President.
Eisenhower liked to retreat from time to time, to paint, read, or watch westerns. (An admirer of the strong and silent type, he watched and rewatched Gary Cooper in High Noon.) But whenever he faced a difficult problem, he made sure to hear out all sides at formal and informal meetings. He didn’t hesitate to jump into the debate, though advisers sometimes couldn’t be sure when he was playing devil’s advocate.
Operating in an age before cable TV and Twitter, Ike was able to float above politics. He didn’t have to raise money to campaign; in fact, he barely had to campaign for reelection in 1956. Congress wasn’t quite as partisan in the 1950s—politics, it was often said during the Cold War, stopped at the water’s edge—but Eisenhower did have to deal with an obstreperous right wing in his own party. Today’s Tea Party may be annoying, but it’s docile compared with the Red-baiting senator Joe McCarthy, who intimidated liberals and moderates with his often baseless but widely publicized allegations.
After Senate majority leader Robert Taft, Republican of Ohio, exploded at the President in a meeting of legislative leaders during Ike’s first spring in office, accusing him of wanting to spend too much on government, Eisenhower took Taft golfing. The two were soon, if not exactly friends, good working partners.
Barack Obama did once play golf with House speaker John Boehner, in the summer of 2011, but the two hardly developed a friendly or even a working relationship. The following summer, when it was reported that Obama had played golf more than a hundred times as President, one lawmaker at a session of the Democratic Senate caucus asked fellow senators, “Any of you play golf with the President?” No one raised a hand.
Obama is never going to be a gladhanding golf buddy. It’s not his style. But Eisenhower, who didn’t like to be touched, wasn’t exactly a backslapper, either. Rather, he was able to convey a genial, open humility, a kind of guilelessness. Yes, it was partly an act—Eisenhower, Richard Nixon once said, “was a more complex and devious man than most people realize”—but all good actors become comfortable in their role over time. Part of the job of President is to set a style, to project a way of being. Eisenhower was confident but never self-important. Rather, he had the confidence to be humble.
For years, Eisenhower’s reputation languished. He was seen as a caretaker President, a dull, golf-playing, grandfatherly figure—an image that the followers of John F. Kennedy effectively fostered to cast Ike as a foil to the vigorous, young JFK. Scholars have long known better—in the early 1980s, Fred Greenstein of Princeton described Ike’s “hidden hand” governance—but only lately has the wider public begun to reevaluate Ike’s legacy, through a number of biographies (including one I wrote) and partly because Ike’s moderate, good-government Republicanism stands in stark contrast to our current hyper-partisanship.
Eisenhower, typically, was offhand about his place in history. Asked how he wanted to be memorialized, he answered: “Just don’t let them put me on a horse.”
Evan Thomas’s latest book is Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.