Originally Published: August 10, 2018 3:04 p.m.
The golf clubs in the laundry room at the rear of Dwight Eisenhower’s farmhouse here are perched and ready, as if the 34th president of the United States might come and fetch them at any moment.
Eisenhower was a passionate golfer. His valet, Sergeant John Moaney, would be tasked with cleaning them after Eisenhower returned from one of his frequent rounds at the nearby Gettysburg Country Club.
To step into this 1950s vintage home, here on the edge of what may be America’s best-known Civil War battlefield, is to step back into another era of American politics; though it’s hard to miss the parallels between his time and our own.
It’s also nearly impossible to miss the contrasts between America’s last outsider, Republican president and the current, outsider Republican president: Donald Trump, between the Republican Party as it was, and it is now.
While fraught with its own unique complications and profound inequalities, Eisenhower’s America was a youthful and optimistic one, emerging from the tumult of World War II to take its place as a global superpower and leader on the world stage.
Compare that to an “America First,” that increasingly sounds like “America Alone.”
Like Trump, Eisenhower presided over a booming economy, contended with the threat of a nuclear armed rival in eastern Europe (the enemy in that case was crystal clear), and though Twitter was still decades away, technology was growing by leaps and bounds.
On the homefront, Eisenhower oversaw the construction of the interstate highway system; he sent federal troops to Arkansas in in 1957 to ensure the desegregation of the public schools; he prompted the United States to take its first baby-steps in the space race, and he famously warned against the emergence of the “military-industrial complex.”
One of the clearest contrasts comes on the civil rights front. Yes, racism was rampant, but you could count on Ike to like civil rights, as The New York Times put it.
Ever the soldier bound by the chain of command, Eisenhower enforced the terms of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating American public schools. Eisenhower also signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law, providing voting protections for black Americans.
Compare that to our current “both-siderism” on matters of race relations, and the seemingly undying push for “Voter ID” that critics believe will specifically disenfranchise black voters.
Overseas, before becoming president, Eisenhower served as NATO’s first supreme commander, where he helped forged an alliance that kept the peace for some 70 years.
“Like no one else, [Eisenhower] saw the challenges of maintaining an alliance, the egoes on different sides, just keeping it together,” Muhlenberg College political science professor Christopher Borick observed. “I can only imagine his thoughts on NATO today and [President Trump’s] perspective on it. They’re 60 years and light years apart.”
Indeed, during a rally in northeastern Pennsylvania last week, Trump groused about the alliance, and again falsely claimed that member nations were “delinquent” in their payments to NATO until he forced them to pony up.
Like Eisenhower, Trump loves golf, and has spent 135 days on the links since becoming president.
Trump has also spent a total of 170 days at Trump-owned properties since last January. Eisenhower spent just one year of his eight years in the White House at the farm, our tour guide told us.
Yes, there are similarities. Eisenhower believed in the power of personal interface, but not in a vacuum.
Ike entertained Winston Churchill and Charles DeGaulle at the farm, and even deployed his grandchildren as secret weapons in a charm offensive against Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, a National Park Service ranger told our tour group.
Like Trump, Eisenhower was a political cypher. At one point, he was courted by Democrats as their presidential candidate. Ike eventually revealed himself as a Republican.
Trump, who spent eight years registered as a Democrat and gave to Democratic candidates and causes, embraced his inner Republican for his 2016 White House bid, though he has little in common with the old-guard GOP of Eisenhower.
“I can’t see Ike tweeting,” Borick quipped. “He didn’t like to say a lot more than he had to.”
Indeed, Eisenhower embraced what some have referred to as “strategic patience,” preferring to wait until the right time to act on an issue.
It’s hard to imagine the brash and impatient Trump employing a similar approach.
Eisenhower’s actions were “defined by his willingness not to speak in a rash way, Borick observed. “His speech was always very measured and not one to change course really quickly. Or to throw out actions or ideas without considerable thought.”
In our whirlwind time, amid our breakneck politics, that almost seems a charmingly quaint notion; a relic of a simpler era.
It’s easy to like Ike. Especially now.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.