A Letter To Mark About Ike

You must be exhausted, Mark. Being the governor of the Bank of Canada during a worldwide financial crisis isn’t a small job. And now you’re moonlighting at the Financial Stability Board in Switzerland. The chairman, no less. I read that you’re going to rescue Europe. Reconfigure the banking system. Prevent global financial meltdown. Save the world.

Seriously, “save the world.” That’s what it said on the cover of Maclean’s. Right beside a picture of you, looking serious and determined.

How do you cope with the stress, Mark? Alcohol? Worked for Churchill. Eisenhower smoked. Went through four packs a day. You don’t plan D-Day without a little pharmacological assist, am I right?

And now everyone in Ottawa is whispering about your political future. I know, you have no intention of getting into politics. None. You are so non-partisan you wouldn’t let yourself be photographed eating blueberries. But can you blame people? No Canadian has been as prominent on the international stage since Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his work in defusing the Suez crisis.

The Nobel committee said Pearson “saved the world.” And there’s really only one job you can do after saving the world. Pearson did it. How about you?

Right, sorry. You haven’t saved the world yet. Maybe you won’t. That would be unfortunate, what with the catastrophic depression and all. But at least people would stop bugging you about becoming prime minister.

Eisenhower would have understood how annoying that is.

Long before D-Day, Eisenhower was famous and wildly popular. And he started to get The Question: Do you want to be president?

He always said “no.” Or “hell no.” Or some variation on that theme.

Eisenhower carefully avoided saying anything about political issues unrelated to his work, he repeatedly said it was wrong for generals to meddle in politics, and he refused to tell anyone – even close friends – whether he voted Democrat or Republican.

But still people kept asking The Question. Year after year. And he kept saying hell no. Year after year. “Politics is a profession; a serious, complicated and, in its true sense, a noble one,” he declared in 1948. “My decision to remove myself from the political scene is definite and positive.”

Four years later he was president.

How did that happen? You’ll like this story, Mark. Pour yourself another Scotch and listen.

Ike had always been sincere. He really did not want to be president. “There is not a single item in the massive collection at the Eisenhower Library prior to late 1951 that even hints that he would seek the job or that he was secretly doing so,” writes an Eisenhower biographer.

But even if Eisenhower didn’t intend to prepare the way to the White House, he did. Brilliantly.

When he returned from the war, he was the biggest celebrity in the country. Every mogul, every industrialist, every publisher wanted to meet him and shake his hand and take him to dinner with other movers and shakers. Eisenhower was a lifelong soldier. He didn’t have money. So when these heavyweights offered him memberships in exclusive golf clubs or the use of their hunting lodges or a trip on a yacht, Eisenhower accepted. And since Ike was a boundlessly friendly guy, he quickly developed a close and loyal network of power brokers. A politician on the make could have done no better.

And not commenting on domestic politics turned out to be an ingenious political move. As Eisenhower noted in late 1951, when he was finally contemplating a run for the presidency, taking stands would “alienate more strength than it would develop” – far better to say nothing and let people assume that the Great Man sees things the way they do. Eisenhower may not have wanted to be a politician, but he always had the instincts of one.

Of course, luck also played a role. It always does.

Eisenhower was convinced that president Harry Truman, a Democrat, was a disaster. Lots of Americans agreed. Truman’s approval rating sank below 30 per cent. Worse, the likely Republican candidate was Robert Taft, an isolationist who would weaken NATO and withdraw from Europe. The whole continent would be at the mercy of the Red Army.

Ike was old school. He believed in duty. And under these circumstances he believed it was his duty to lead.

Of course he could have sat on corporate boards, made bags of money, and lived a life of luxury. No one would have blamed him. He had more than done his bit.

But as a friend told him, he wouldn’t enjoy himself. “In no circumstances could you ever avoid the burden of worry over the country’s future course,” the friend said, “and there would seem to be fewer frustrations for the leader than there would be for the commentator.”

Underlying everything was Eisenhower’s confidence. “Despite his oft-expressed modesty,” noted his biographer, “he was supremely self-confident, certain that of all the candidates for national leadership, he was the best prepared for the job. Although he never said so, even to himself, he knew that he was smarter, more experienced, and had better principles than his competitors, and thus was the right man to lead America through the world crisis. He wanted what was best for his country, and in the end he decided that he was the best and would have to serve.”

Great stuff, isn’t it? I like Ike. Do you, Mark?