Partisanship: What would Eisenhower say?

by Kasey Pipes and Jennifer Donahue

Eisenhower Institute fellows connect past and present


America needs real leadership
By Kasey Pipes, Presidential speechwriter

More than 50 years after his presidency and 40 years after his death, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s legacy remains alive and well. New books appear almost every year re-evaluating the 34th president’s achievements. His stock among historians has never been higher.

But to see Ike’s legacy, we need not look at history books. A glance at today’s headlines will do. As America continues to face domestic and foreign policy challenges, Ike’s record provides clues as to what the hero of D-Day might say were he alive today.

A struggling economy? Ike believed government should be run like a business: balance the budget and make key investments to produce long-term dividends. The result? A decade of economic growth, the construction of the Interstate Highway System, and major federal contributions to education and science.

A world on the brink? Ike understood the grim realities of the Cold War and believed America should seek cooperation where possible but not fear confrontation when necessary. The result? A delicate peace that lasted until the chaos of the 1960s.

What united these policies was Ike’s belief that America needed leadership. He knew how to evaluate policy options, examine risks, and make difficult decisions, as he did during 1957’s Little Rock Central High Crisis. After Gov. Orval Faubus refused to admit nine African-American students to the school, Eisenhower carefully worked through a thicket of legal and political challenges. How would he enforce integration without enraging public opinion that was lukewarm at best on civil rights? How would he establish a legal precedent for enforcing Brown v. Board of Education? How would he keep the Little Rock Nine safe from mob violence?

He responded by working behind the scenes, building political support, and pressuring local leaders. When all else failed, he used military force to disperse the mob and protect the children. It worked. Within days the mob had disappeared and the integration of Little Rock Central High had succeeded.

For the past three years, Gettysburg College and the Eisenhower Institute have sponsored Inside Politics, a seminar where Gettysburg students study the art of politics up close and personal by meeting with Washington policymakers and conducting original research. Why do leaders make decisions? What motivates them? How different do challenges look from inside the White House than outside? Students also probe Ike’s handling of Little Rock to see how a leader makes decisions in the heat of battle. Nearly 50 students have participated; applications increase each semester. But perhaps the best measure of the program’s success is the students who have gone on to intern or work in Washington, D.C.

We are proud of these students. Ike would be too. Four decades ago, he had this advice for young people: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you. Don’t be afraid to reach upward.”


… not polarized politics
By Jennifer Donahue, media commentator

“I despise people who go to the gutter on either the right or the left and hurl rocks at those in the center.”
— Dwight D. Eisenhower

During this period of incredible political polarization, President Eisenhower’s words have a special meaning. A truly bipartisan leader, Eisenhower was an advocate for the center. What a contrast to today’s politics, where gridlock rules the day.

When I talk to voters and to the students I teach at Gettysburg College, the thing I hear most is that Congress, with an alarmingly low approval rating of 9 percent, is not fit for the job of governing.

The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution at a time when party came second to principle, and I think they would not have imagined the divisiveness in Washington that exists today. The distrust between the parties is huge, and that has led to an angry and confused electorate. During the time of Eisenhower’s presidency, it wasn’t left-right politics that ruled the day, but governing for all of America’s citizens.

I worry about the movement of Democrats and Republicans away from having respect for other viewpoints, and their movement away from the mainstream of American politics. It concerns me as a model for America’s young people, who are living through such a period of partisan warfare. It concerns me when our leaders’ discourse has lost its civility. How can we teach the next generation of leaders to work in a collaborative fashion when there are so few role models of that kind of conduct?

Here is what reassures me: the discourse and enthusiasm of the students I have taught in the Eisenhower Institute’s Women In Leadership program. We have spent many hours discussing political leaders, and met with a vast array of leaders both in the political sphere and in the worlds of media, business, academia, and sports.

The students have responded with an openness and earnestness that have restored my faith that the cynicism we often associate with leadership has not dispirited this group of young people. The students in Women In Leadership have shown an amazing capacity to look beyond the current partisan tone, to learn from leaders of both parties and all walks of life, and have echoed back the lessons they have learned throughout the semester.

Eisenhower said during his presidency, “I have one yardstick by which I test every major problem — and that yardstick is: Is it good for America?” Only with this kind of yardstick can those in politics get beyond the quagmire of partisanship we are stuck in today and do what is truly best for America.

And despite the challenges we face today as a country, I see a young group of Americans in today’s students who are truly getting the message that what is best for the country, not what separates us, is what true leaders aspire to.

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