Wednesday, March 3, 2010


While I was rearranging some of the books here, I pulled out the Unicorn Book of 1954, a sort of yearbook of outstanding events of the year. It was a fairly significant year and all, what with H-bombs and Dienbienphu, the Army-McCarthy hearings, Brown v Board of Education, and endless crime.

Given yesterday's post about The Narrative and how news has to track The Narrative no matter what the facts show, I was fascinated by some of the items in this popular history tome from more than half a century ago, especially the strong parallels between the way, say, Eisenhower's approach to the Presidency was reported in almost identical terms to those used to describe Obama's approach.

For example:

In a series of messages to congress in January, 1954, Eisenhower proudly presented what he called a “dynamic, forward-looking program.” To his surprise, it was much criticized as well as much praised. “It was as dynamic as the dodo, “ said Democrat Sam Rayburn, House Minority Leader, “and as forward-looking as yesterday.”

Economically, the program was conservative, though it did urge the extension of unemployment insurance and social security. “In a modern industrial society, “ Eisenhower declared, “banishment of destitution and cushioning the shock of personal disaster on the individual are proper concerns of all levels of government.”

Democrats joked. “The Eisenhower administration, “ said Representative Richard Bolling of Missouri, “has just ratified the New Deal.”

“I thought we voted for a change,” cried Republican Senator John Marshall Butler of Maryland.

“If this is the policy of the Republican Party, “ said John W. Bricker of Ohio, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

This was hardly the unity the President had expected on his middle-of-the-road program, which he thought would attract both liberals and conservatives. It was Eisenhower’s earnest desire to be considered “President of all the people” -- all 163 million of them -- regardless of party or faction. The ideal fetched up against one hard reality: people do not think alike. As Mr. Eisenhower discovered, no President could be above all controversy.

How very much this Narrative resembles the current one. To continue:

After enunciating his domestic policies early in the year, Eisenhower at first pursued a hands-off-Congress program. He felt it was his job as President to recommend legislation but the job of Congress to enact it. When reporters asked about specific bills, he referred them to recommendations made by Cabinet members, adding: "Now the job is up to Congress."

He sincerely believed he could get on with "the toughest job on Earth" by quiet behind-the-scenes patience. He believed that reasonable men in the executive departments and in Congress could and would work together to solve problems logically, on the basis of facts and in line with national welfare.

Indeed. It should be so simple, shouldn't it? Why isn't it?

His friend, General George ("Blood and Guts") Patton, a careful planner as well as a dashing military leader, once pointed to a piece of boiled spaghetti on a table top.

"Suppose," said Patton, "you want to move the spaghetti across the table. If you get behind and push, you'll get nowhere, no matter how much you huff and puff. But if you get in front of it and pull gently but firmly, the spaghetti is far more likely to slide across the table in an orderly manner."

Congress moved slowly. Reluctantly, Eisenhower began to act more like a practical politician, pulling as well as pushing. He was giving "spaghetti" leadership a whirl.

Eisenhower took office in January, 1953. So he'd been in office a year when these passages were written. The frustrations the chattering and political classes had with Eisenhower are very similar to the frustrations expressed by Republicans and Democrats -- and the chatterati -- about Barack Obama. The Narrative seems to be that Presidents who don't act boldly and decisively from the outset are to be criticized and/or dismissed as worthless occupants of the office.

George W. Bush was actually going through this period of criticism and dismissal for lack of decisiveness and bold action (remember his "agony" over stem cell research?) prior to the transformative event of the 9/11 attacks, after which, of course, he was hailed the hero.

Eisenhower never had a transformative event like that from which to "lead" the nation through crisis, though the threat of instant incineration and total annihilation was the constant social and political theme of the era. Yet many Americans believe the Eisenhower Era was something of a Golden Age.

And why not? The Narrative told us everything was fine. Getting better. What's to worry? Enjoy. Laugh.

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