I Like Ike

Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum

By: - Jun 06, 2010

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It was Memorial Day when we visited the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. The complex of five separate buildings closes only three days per year.

Having visited the Clinton Library in Little Rock, as well as the Kennedy Library in Boston, there were opportunities to observe similarities and differences.

As one of the first Presidential Libraries it was readily apparent that there have been considerable improvements in the genre.

Much of our time in Abilene seemed like a step back in a time machine. There were numerous signifiers of conservative, fundamentalist Christian, small time life in rural America. Viewing the museum from its front, for example, there was a large grain elevator as a backdrop.

The heart of the complex of buildings including a visitor’s center, chapel, library and museum was the Eisenhower family home. This is a modest structure densely packed with  its original vintage furniture and decorative objects none of which were notable or distinguished. Considering that it was home to a family of seven boys it is cluttered and claustrophobic. We were only allowed to tour the ground floor and not the upstairs bedrooms.

It was from such a modest small town, middle American setting that Eisenhower (October 14, 1890 to March 28, 1969, left to attend West Point. He became the only five star general in U.S. history and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War Two. After the war he was president of Columbia University.

With the famous campaign slogan of I Like Ike he defeated Adlai Stevenson to become the 34th President of the United States serving for two terms January 20, 1953 – January 20, 1961. He succeeded a former friend Harry S. Truman. They were not of speaking terms because Ike refused to denounce the right wing Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard M. Nixon, a congressman from California, made his name for dirty tricks and fighting communism.

At 62 Eisenhower was the oldest elected president and one of the few who never previously held an elected office. During long stretches of illness while president Nixon ran the country gaining valuable credentials for his own later presidential aspirations.

While the architect of the plan to defeat Nazi Germany, an effective strategist and diplomat,  Ike, though universally respected and admired, was far less charismatic and brilliant than several of the generals under his command. His greatest talent appeared to be keeping all of those egos focused on the primary goal.

As president Eisenhower presided over an era of prosperity, conservative values, the Cold War, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. While Rock ‘n’ Roll was spawned under his watch Ike certainly did not swing to the beat.

It is alleged that Eisenhower was persuaded to stay with his wife Mamie for the sake of his future and potential political career. It was speculated that his personal assistant and driver during the war, Kay Summerby, was more than a faithful employee.

As a monument to one of our greatest military leaders and presidents the architecture and design in Abilene is uninspired. Both the library and museum, which face each other, are elongated, rectangular structures in brick and stone. The large lobby in the library is enhanced with a veneer of elegant chromatic marble. But there is nothing striking about the design. The uninspiring murals in the museum recall thos created all over America by the W.P.A during the Great Depression.

The visitors center is modest and does not speak to considerable traffic. It egregiously sells the usual trinkets including Elvis pillows and references to the Wizard of Oz which was at least based in Kansas.

By comparison to the enervating design and displays of the Eisenhower Library the Clinton Library signifies how far we have come in the genre.

Our time spent in Abilene, however, did convey an accurate portrait of a great American, his humble origins, and  wholesome conservative values when most red blooded American liked Ike. He was loved and trusted for having led us through our darkest hour.

Visiting on Memorial Day reinforced the enormity of that accomplishment.