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David A. Nichols: What would Ike do?

  • Published Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, at 4:11 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, at 4:11 p.m.

We are awash in advice to President Obama about his post re-election prospects. Skepticism abounds. Pundits are quick to recite the second-term difficulties encountered by “lame-duck” presidents including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower.

Eisenhower? Wait a minute. Too many of our simplistic assumptions about the Eisenhower presidency have no foundation in fact. If Obama wants a model for launching a second term, he should take a look at Ike.

After his re-election in 1956, Eisenhower (who had suffered a heart attack and life-threatening surgery the year prior) unveiled bold proposals for addressing the nation’s two foremost challenges abroad and at home – Middle East policy and civil rights.

The first arose out of the most dangerous crisis of the Eisenhower years. On Oct. 29, nine days before the election, Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt in an attempt to recover control of the Suez Canal, which Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the previous July. They did not consult Eisenhower. An angry Ike faced down his old allies, denying them oil or financial assistance until he was able to extract a cease-fire on Nov. 6, Election Day.

Two days later, Eisenhower sketched out ideas for a new American policy in the Middle East. In an unprecedented four-hour meeting on New Year’s Day 1957, Eisenhower presented a resolution to congressional leaders endorsing military and economic aid to Middle East nations and, if necessary, military intervention.

The House of Representatives passed the Eisenhower Doctrine on Jan. 30. That day Ike paraded visiting King Saud of Saudi Arabia before the cameras, prodding the monarch to publicly recognize the state of Israel as “an historical fact.” The Senate passed the Middle East resolution on March 5.

For good or ill, the Eisenhower Doctrine remains a cornerstone of American policy.

On Jan. 10, 1957 – in a State of the Union message touting his new Middle East doctrine – Eisenhower also proposed groundbreaking civil rights legislation. The president sought a bipartisan civil rights commission, a civil rights division in the Justice Department, authority for the attorney general “to seek from the civil courts preventive relief in civil rights cases” (known as Part III) and protection of voting rights.

The myth is that the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was Lyndon Johnson’s triumph. In fact, it was Eisenhower’s. Johnson authored no legislation and voted repeatedly with the segregationists to gut the bill. The segregationists fiercely attacked Part III because it would grant the attorney general unprecedented authority to sue in federal court to protect all civil rights, including school desegregation. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia and Johnson torpedoed that provision, forcing Ike to choose between dropping it or no bill at all.

Eisenhower wisely chose to break the legislative logjam. By so doing, he destroyed the Southern segregationist stranglehold on civil rights legislation and laid the groundwork for the watershed legislation of 1964-65.

Two weeks after signing the bill, Ike punctuated his legislative triumph by sending troops into Little Rock to enforce a federal court order for school desegregation.

Eisenhower viewed his second term as an opportunity, not a handicap. Let us hope that Obama will reject the advice of the cynics who contend otherwise.

David A. Nichols of Winfield is the author of “A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution” and “Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis – Suez and the Brink of War.”

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