Friday, August 31, 2012

COMMENTARY: Eisenhower was the best president in 20th Century


With one convention now wrapped and another one on the horizon, there will be a handful of tributes to former presidents.

The Republican National Convention ran a tribute to Ronald Reagan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dedicated a portion of his speech to defending the record of his brother, former president George W. Bush.

When the Democratic Party meets up in Charlotte next week, former president Bill Clinton will give a speech and I imagine some tribute to John F. Kennedy will be given.

It's a shame that both conventions will ignore Dwight David Eisenhower.

Eisenhower, who was from Kansas, is often overlooked in terms of being one of the three or four best presidents ever. (He's fourth on my list behind Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson.)

He's not mentioned too often by liberals, as they believe Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the best president of the 20th Century. Conservatives will argue about Reagan being the best in the 20th Century.

They're all wrong.

The best president in the last 100 years was Ike.

Six reasons why -

1. The National Highway System. 

The highway project Eisenhower was primarily responsible for is really the last bold project America did that benefited all Americans.

(With all due respect to the space program and NASA, I'm more concerned about who the starting quarterback is for the Basehor-Linwood Bobcats than I am about landing on Mars. Sorry.)

The highway system was pushed by Eisenhower initially as something that benefited national security, but it became much more than that. Imagine your daily lives without the highway system. Getting to work would be very hard if you lived 20 miles away. Imagine the amount of economic activity that involves the highway. A lot of the economy is tied to transportation - and the highways are extremely important in that. Goods and gas are delivered by large trucks and the highways made it possible.

2. Eisenhower's unappreciated Civil Rights record. 

Eisenhower's Civil Rights achievements were more significant than Roosevelt, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson - and I'll argue this all day and night.

During Eisenhower's presidency, he appointed five non-Southerners who supported Civil Rights to the U.S. Supreme Court, including Earl Warren. He also threatened to pull funding for the U.S. military if it did not fully integrate as it failed to do after Harry Truman ordered it to do. Washington D.C.'s public buildings were desegregated under Eisenhower. Eisenhower also was instrumental in passing the first Civil Rights legislation in 82 years - and if it wasn't for the Dixiecrats in the South, the bill would have been stronger.

There was also that episode in Arkansas where he federalized the Arkansas National Guard to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., a pretty gutsy move considering it was the first time federal troops entered the South since the Civil War. Having researched Eisenhower during my college years, I was shocked at how underrated his record was. It's a shame it's not respected more.

3. He had a strong, but responsible foreign policy. 

Eisenhower ended the Korean War, defusing a situation that could have erupted into World War III. At the same time, Eisenhower still pushed for a strong military build-up against the Soviet Union. Alliances with European nations were also strengthened and he and Truman put the United States on track to eventually win the Cold War.

4. Eisenhower was a fiscally responsible president. 

In the past 60 years, the United States has had eight balanced budgets. That's not a good track record, but three of them belonged to Eisenhower. I find it odd that he gets no respect from fiscal conservatives in this area. He was the last sitting Republican president to sign off on a balanced budget - something not even Reagan or Bush can say. Many point to his support of the New Deal programs, but Reagan or any other Republican didn't exactly roll them back either. To be fair, it should be noted the GOP controlled the Congress when the budget was balanced in the Clinton years.

5. He wasn't a demagogue.

Ike's conduct was conservative and his politics were close to the vest. He was not a political bomb thrower that you see in today's politics from both sides of the aisle. Eisenhower was a true gentleman in office and he was beloved by Americans because of it. 

6. He has no stain on his legacy.

No man is perfect, but Eisenhower really didn't screw up. FDR, meanwhile, did not do nearly enough on Civil Rights. He did not support anti-lynching laws. While I admire Truman, the Korean War and his relations with Congress clouded his legacy. JFK made some critical errors in foreign policy that led up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, most notably the Bay of Pigs. LBJ had Vietnam. Nixon had Watergate. Reagan had Iran-Contra. Clinton had Whitewater, Monica and for some people, Waco. Eisenhower, again while not a perfect president, did not have a major failure during his presidency if you look at it closely.

Those six reasons make Eisenhower the best president of the 20th Century.

Unfortunately, you didn't hear too much about his presidency this week in Tampa Bay and you probably won't next week in Charlotte.

However, he deserves better.

He was an excellent president and if Mount Rushmore ever added a face, Ike's should go up.