When Dwight Eisenhower was first mentioned as a possible candidate for president in 1948, House Speaker Sam Rayburn offered a pithy assessment: "Good man but wrong business." Today it's clear that few of the White House's occupants have been more right for the job.
Eisenhower was the last president born in the 19th century — 125 years ago this week. He governed during the 1950s, a decade that now seems hopelessly anachronistic. But our experience since then illuminates virtues he had that have grown more valuable as they have become rarer.
In office, he was disparaged on both the left and the right. Conservative pundit William F. Buckley said Ike was "undaunted by principle, unchained by any coherent ideas as to the nature of man and society." To Democrats, he was the antithesis of Adlai Stevenson, whom they regarded as "the voice of a reasonable, civilized, elevated America," in the words of liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger.
What looked like defects then look better now. He ended one war, in Korea, and began no new ones. He balanced the federal budget three times and reduced the federal debt as a share of gross domestic product. He cut spending in inflation-adjusted dollars. He steered his party away from McCarthyism.
Inspiring speeches were not his thing. His supporters said "I like Ike," not "I revere Ike." Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, he resisted using the presidency as a "bully pulpit." He lacked the grand ambitions of Franklin Roosevelt.
Critics who saw him as a do-nothing despaired at his popularity with the American people. Richard Strout wrote in The New Republic, "The less he does the more they love him." A public with fresh memories of the Great Depression and World War II wanted tranquility, not transformation.
Eisenhower wasn't averse to action when it was required. But he showed a keen appreciation of limits — the limits of military power, the federal government's competence and the role of the president.
He had a sense of perspective rooted in the perils he had overcome as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II. When he traveled to give the commencement address in 1954 at Penn State University, where his brother was president, downpours forced the huge event indoors. Milton apologized, but Ike smiled and said he hadn't worried about rain since it threatened to impede the Normandy invasion.
He would not be spooked into rash decisions. When France was losing a war in Vietnam, he declined to send U.S. forces to help an ally — and he quashed a proposal by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to use nuclear weapons. "You boys must be crazy," was his reply.
When the Soviets sent troops to crush an uprising in Hungary in 1956, some conservatives wanted action to roll back the communist empire. Eisenhower sent a letter asking the Soviets to withdraw. They didn't.
While championing NATO as a bulwark against Moscow, he pushed for the rearmament of West Germany to reduce the American load. He warned against excessive arms spending promoted by the "military-industrial complex."
On the occasions that he took regrettable steps abroad, he at least minimized risks to Americans. After unfriendly governments gained power in Iran and Guatemala, he used covert action by the CIA, not military invasions, to overthrow them.
No one would argue that Eisenhower, who advised blacks to practice "patience and forbearance," did enough for racial equality. But he ended segregation in Veterans Administration hospitals and in schools on military bases. He pushed through the first civil rights act since Reconstruction.
When the governor of Arkansas defied a court order to admit blacks to a public school in Little Rock, Ike sent the 101st Airborne Division to enforce it — provoking opposition from, among others, Sen. John F. Kennedy.
In 1956, Eisenhower won 39 percent of the black vote, the most any Republican had achieved since 1932. Eight years later, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater got just 6 percent of the black vote. In 2012, Mitt Romney got less. That is just one measure of how today's Republican Party would be unrecognizable to Eisenhower.
He was one of our best presidents because of his seasoned judgment and steady calm during a period more turbulent than we often remember. Too bad that among the people now vying to win the presidency, in either party, there is no one like Ike.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.