Reissued and abridged, biography emphasizes Eisenhower's abilities


EISENHOWER: SOLDIER AND PRESIDENT. Stephen E. Ambrose. Simon & Schuster. 635 pages. $29.95. Despite an extraordinary career as soldier and statesman, Dwight Eisenhower was skewered during the reform-minded 1960s as the "mark-time general," a complacent, uninspired plodder who was able enough but lacked passion and vision -- "the bland leading the bland," it was said of the president who seemed a perfect match for the phlegmatic '50s. His reputation faded along with flannel suits and tail fins amid the dramatic changes in personal style and national temper that attended the Kennedy-Johnson years.

By the 1980s, however, in the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate and two decades of tumult, Americans cast a more critical eye toward the mindless idealism and inflated commitments of the '60s and acquire a new appreciation for Ike's low-key competence and honesty and for less ambitious political agendas. With Ronald Reagan, restraint in government and modesty in leaders suddenly had become virtues. Eisenhower, who at the end of his sputtering second term had been relegated to the mediocre ranks by scholars rating the presidents, re-emerged in a new poll as among the very best.

Stephen E. Ambrose is perhaps as responsible as anyone for the rehabilitation of Eisenhower. In a two-volume biography that appeared in 1983 and 1984, he cemented the revised image of the mark-time general as a self-effacing but supremely confident wartime commander and a cautious but savvy political leader who guided the nation through a treacherous decade.

The biography did not so much contribute startlingly new information or insights about Eisenhower's life and accomplishments as give the Eisenhower stereotype a new spin. In Mr. Ambrose's estimate, Ike the warrior perhaps lacked MacArthur's boldness or Marshall's strategic brilliance, but he had exactly the sort of tact and charm for melding a fractious Allied coalition into a unified fighting force. As president, what he lacked in charisma he compensated for with prudence, steadiness, integrity and an amiability that won a devoted following among ordinary citizens even as the academic establishment savaged him.

Issued to coincide with the celebration of Eisenhower's 100th birthday, "Eisenhower: Soldier and President" is a substantial condensation of the author's two-volume biography. Although the original product was impressively researched and creditably enough written, it was not by any means a "monumental" work (as the publisher now extravagantly claims), and the abridgment by half here leaves a conspicuously shorn and shrunken narrative. The result is less a thoughtfully distilled one-volume portrait than a cut-and-paste job that one suspects was conceived purely for commemorative, and commercial, purposes.

In bare-bones fashion, Mr. Ambrose's condensed account traces Eisenhower's passage from humble beginnings in Kansas and an unprepossessing start in the military (he still was a lieutenant colonel on his 50th birthday in 1940) to wartime distinction and meteoric promotion that culminated in his appointment as head of the Allied forces in Europe. Both providence and tragedy marked his life up to that point. Service with present and future giants Patton, Fox Conner, MacArthur and Marshall enriched his experience as it burnished his credentials. But his rise to prominence was shadowed by an inordinate share of adversity as well -- the near-amputation of a leg in high school, the loss of a 3-year-old son to scarlet fever, an unhappy marriage -- such that the already trademark wide grin and sunny disposition sometimes masked gnawing malaise and stress stemming from his personal trials.

Mr. Ambrose notes the irony of the largely apolitical Eisenhower gravitating into politics after the war. ("MacArthur, the most political of generals," he observes, "never succeeded in politics, while three of the most apolitical generals in American history, Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower, did.") As the author indicates, however, the 34th president was far more politically engaged and sophisticated than was commonly supposed during his administration. His schedule may have been bracketed by golf outings and bridge soirees, but it bristled with behind-the-scenes courting of congressmen and carefully orchestrated press conferences. Ike, in Mr. Ambrose's analysis, was disarmingly avuncular: His warmth and unpretentiousness endeared him to his countrymen, but his astuteness and wiliness enabled him to shepherd them through eight years of relative peace and prosperity.

Having been overly maligned by Kennedy-mesmerized "liberal" critics, Ike probably has been treated too deferentially by the new breed of rush-to-vindicate revisionists. His tepid commitment to civil rights, and his indifference toward the race issue generally, are not the stuff of enduring legacy. In other matters also, the much touted "Eisenhower equilibrium" too often resulted merely in inaction or abdication. Then there was the affair with Kay Summersby, which Mr. Ambrose treats charitably, if more extensively and directly than previous biographers.

Still, even allowing for chinks in the general's armor, Mr. Ambrose's characterization of him as a "great and good man" seems reasonable enough for the only American in this century to achieve his country's highest military and civilian ranks. No doubt his reputation will wax and wane according to the perspective of the times, and the ongoing and fickle reassessments of historians. One would not be surprised to find in the next presidential greatness poll one James Earl Carter gaining ground on the mark-time general, with Ronald Wilson Reagan plummeting past both in a free-fall plunge.

Mr. Rochester is a historian with the Department of Defense and the author of two books on American history.

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