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Interview: David Eisenhower, Author of Going Home To Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969

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I’m interested in history, especially the ’60s. I’m also interested in family dynamics. Going Home To Glory managed to marry these two things as it answers a question David Eisenhower was often asked: What was it like to grow up in the ’60s with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower (DDE) as his grandfather?

This book does several things, all of them well: Chronicles the life of “Ike” during the 60s as he adjusted to life after being president from 1953 through 1961, describes the relationship between David and Dwight and providing a different look at Ike then the one usually found in history books and memoirs.

The book was eye-opening and made me more of a fan of Ike than I was before I read this. The book was co-written by Julie Nixon, daughter of the former president. David previously wrote Eisenhower: At War, 1943-1945.

Do you get asked a lot what it’s like to have a grandfather who was a former president? I think I have a better answer to that question after reading this. Was answering that one of your goals with this book? What were your other goals with this book?

For as long as I can remember, I was asked the question (what is it like to be Grandson of the President/General?), and I think I answer the question as best I can in the book. My objective in doing the book was to address/answer two slightly different questions: “What was it about DDE that made him a national and international leader for over two decades? What kind of person was he?”

Do you compare notes with others about what their childhood was like and how different yours was? What are the pros and cons of having a grandfather who was a president and general?

There were many pros in being the grandson of the President. To begin with, being grandson meant automatic acceptability in school, which is so important for grade-schoolers and teenagers. Being grandson meant exposure to unusual situations and experiences, which have fired a lifetime curiosity for history and inspired my professional life. It meant access to certain events and the opportunity to meet history makers, making people and places vivid, and making postwar American and international history come alive. It’s hard to think of “cons”– as a boy and teenager, I was fortunate and I knew it.

I blushed on your behalf at you receiving that letter from Eisenhower telling you to be more careful about who you kiss. How embarrassing was that?

Not that embarassing, really. In his letter, Granddad teased me about my mononucleosis diagnosis. To be honest, the doctors at Exeter painted a very dark picture of “mono” and having the condition was worrisome. My “mono” symptoms dragged on for many months — Granddad’s cheerfulness about it gave me an important lift.

What do you think Eisenhower would make of the politics of today, specifically Obama and Sarah Palin?

I think Dwight Eisenhower would doubtlessly admire today’s national politicians, especially in view of the personal and physical ordeal they must undergo in national politics. I imagine that were he alive today, Dwight Eisenhower would be in touch with the President and with all prominent GOP national leaders, and that his advice and counsel would be solicited and taken seriously.

You refer on page 157 to a forbidden topic and that makes me wonder what other topics were forbidden to discuss around Ike?

Yes, World War II was a forbidden subject, at least for me as a youngster, for reasons I explain in Going Home to Glory. Granddad was impatient with casual questions and easy generalizations about the subject — he DID permit and encourage me to educate myself on WWII, which I did. Other forbidden subjects do not come to mind.

You write about how he didn’t seem to understand the civil unrest of the about the war and other issues in the 1960s? Why do you think that was and was it hard being, essentially, his eyes and ears on campus, the sort of ambassador role he gave you?

That Granddad “did not understand” the sixties is the way I tended to see things as a teen and a twenty-something. In hindsight, I think that DDE well understood the outlook of youth in the mid and late sixties. The youth rebellion of the late sixties stemmed from the view that Vietnam was futile and that the cold war was ending, and with it the restraints and sacrifices required by the times.

As a former President who had devoted his second term to ending the cold war, and as a “practical pacifist,” DDE could not have failed to sympathize with the desire for peace. Moreover, through private emissaries and in discussions with Johnson (and Nixon), DDE warned of the sense of frustration felt towards the apparently endless Vietnam war, a frustration felt widely among his business friends and associates.

Sensing disaster, therefore, Eisenhower consistently urged on Johnson a more aggressive military strategy in order to end the war. He recognized “war weariness” as the likely consequence of half measures taken in Vietnam. But he strongly believed that solidarity behind President Johnson (and later Nixon) was essential in hastening negotiations, and hastening an acceptable outcome in Vietnam. In 1967-8, Eisenhower did all he could to discourage civil unrest, believing that the image of disunity at home was prolonging the agony of Vietnam.

You mention your grandfather loved westerns. What do you think it was about that genre that he so loved?

Granddad loved westerns because he spent his childhood in Abilene, Kansas and was raised in the lore of the “old west.” Only two decades before his birth, “Wild Bill” Hickock had been the chief law enforcement officer in Abilene, a notorious cattle town in the 1870’s. The “big skies” setting of westerns also appealed to him, as did the theme of “man against nature” prevalent in many western novels. As a boy, he had been an avid reader of Jack London novels.

Was it hard, growing up, reconciling your impressions of Ike with those of others? You mention, for example, on page 375, how some saw more warmth in him than you didn’t see. To quote you, “To me, Dwight Eisenhower had always been imposing and at times unapproachable, and I had never understood why people thought of him as so genial.”

I saw DDE as an imposing figure, as larger than life. But as imposing as he was, DDE was the best ally and friend a person could have, and I never doubted he was my ally.

Your stories and anecdotes about Gettysburg brought back lots of memories as my last reporting stint was in Hagerstown, Md and that led me to visit sometimes for pleasure something for stories Gettysburg and Antietam. Have you spent much time back there since the 60s?

Julie and I have visited Antietam several times, and we visit Gettysburg as often as we can. Growing up, I spent many enjoyable Sundays touring Civil War battlefields with my Dad (Gettysburg, Virginia battlefields). On my last visit to Antietam, my young son bought a Yankee cap and a plastic musket so he could storm the “Burnside Bridge.”

Touring fields with my Dad and sitting in on civil war discussions between my dad and granddad made me a lifelong devotee of Civil War history. In the years since, trips to WWI and WWII battlefields have proven as interesting. In 1999, my Dad took me on a tour through the Meuse-Argonne sector, following the same itinerary of a trip he had taken through the area with DDE in 1929, seventy years before.

Can you elaborate on a comment you made to the effect that Nixon might have been able to avoid some of what you call “the trouble that brought him grief” if Eisenhower had lived and served in the Nixon administration? Are you alluding to Watergate and/or other Nixon missteps?

In this passage, I was quoting Bryce Harlow who served both Eisenhower and Nixon as an adviser. In my opinion, Bryce was drawing valid comparisons about style, temperament and so on between the two Presidents. What Bryce was saying was that a living former President Eisenhower MIGHT have had an inhibiting effect on the Nixon Presidency — for better and for worse.

In truth, Eisenhower’s influence — had he lived– was a matter of conjecture. In my mind, Harlow’s comment raised a second question; can Nixon’s major achievements be neatly separated from his failures? Can Eisenhower’s? Harlow was not being critical of Nixon when he spoke with me (at length) about his role as intermediary between the two and of his service in both White Houses. As early as fall 1976, Harlow had no doubt that Nixon’s achievements in ending Vietnam and opening relations with mainland China would prove to be epoch-making. Harlow also viewed Nixon’s achievements as the product of a boldness in style and concept that carried over into Nixon’s domestic policies, his confrontation with critics, the Congress, etc. Nixon was the man for his time, in Harlow’s opinion, as Eisenhower was the man for his (earlier) time.

Lastly my bonus question I ask in all interviews — What question do you wish you were asked in interviews that you are often not asked. Here’s your chance to ask it and answer it.
Question to me — how would you sum up the person you knew as “Granddad” in the 1960’s?

As a leader of armies in war and as leader of the Free World in peace, Dwight Eisenhower was considered to a “great” man. In Going Home to Glory, we offer a picture of the private man behind that greatness. DDE was a “great” man, as I see it, because he was good man — a good man in matters large and small, in matters both public and personal. He was deeply involved in the lives of those he knew and involved in the wider world around him. He lived fearlessly and generously. For historians today DDE’s appeal is probably something of a mystery. I hope that Going Home to Glory sheds light on this mystery, and on DDE and his times.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.