There was a lot to like about Ike, a quiet leader

MIKE ROYKO

February 15, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

If you looked up enough old newspapers from the 1950s and closely studied the front pages, you might notice that something was missing. Especially after 1953.

You might look through issue after issue, day after day -- maybe even a week or two -- without seeing a certain well-known name.

The same could be said for the TV news programs of that era. That same well-known name might not be uttered by news announcers for days at a time.

The name was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was president from January 1953 until January 1961.

Eisenhower was a remarkable man. A great general in World War II, and one of the better presidents of this century.

But looking back, one of the things I like most about Ike is that he was the last president who didn't feel the need to barge into our consciousness every day.

You could actually go several days at a time without knowing what the president of the United States was doing with his time. You didn't know what he was thinking, what his views were on the latest news trifle, or who he played golf with.

It was assumed that he was doing his job, which he was. As time passes, historians find more and more to like about Ike.

But he didn't think it necessary to send his press secretary out every 15 minutes to give reporters an update on how he did his job during the last 15 minutes and a preview of how he would do it during the next 15.

Nor was he surrounded by an army of yammering White House lackeys springing more leaks than an old garden hose.

He was the last president who respected the right of all Americans not to believe that the sun, the moon and the stars rotated around the occupants of the White House.

In other words, he didn't say anything unless he had something to say. And the people who worked for him usually kept their mouths shut unless there was a good reason to open them.

But that ended with Ike. He was succeeded by our first media president, John F. Kennedy, who introduced us to the photo opportunities of a president taking walks on a beach, the glib press conferences and all the Camelot schmaltz.

It was Kennedy who introduced the concept that a day without a White House story was like a day without sunshine.

Since then, every president and presidential staff has felt it their duty to bombard defenseless Americans with every thought that pops into their heads.

At the same time, we've had a media explosion, especially in broadcast news. The tiniest news crumb is treated like Sara Lee's assembly line.

Now, with President Clinton in the White House -- or as some snide fellow said, "The law firm of Clinton & Clinton," it will become almost impossible to hide from the barrage of presidential non-news.

As his Hollywood media advisers have told him, there is no difference between politics and show business. And the first rule of show biz is to attract an audience.

I will offer a bet. Look at this newspaper every day for the next year. See if you can find one edition in which the words "President Clinton" do not appear.

If you are a news-broadcast addict, see if a day passes without the words "President Clinton" or "the White House says" being used on CNN or the networks.

It won't happen. Even if Clinton & Clinton locked themselves in their offices and told their staffs that anybody who said one word to the press would have his tongue torn out, we'd have a headline saying: "Clinton Puts Gag on White House." And Blitz Wolfer would go on CNN and tell us: "Informed sources say that informed sources aren't being informative."

. . . the last president who didn't feel the need to barge into our consciousness every day.

Maybe that's why people look back so fondly on the 1950s. They think of it as our last tranquil decade.

Actually, it wasn't all that tranquil. The Korean War, which took almost as many American lives as Vietnam, didn't end until the summer of 1953. We had Joe McCarthy leading the frenzied communist bogyman hunt. The Soviets beat us into space with Sputnik, causing a burst of nuclear fear that had millions of Americans digging fallout shelters in their back yards.

We had the first rumblings of the civil rights movement, with Eisenhower sending troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce a judge's high school desegregation order. Typical of Ike, he didn't order a speech-writer to whip up something eloquent for posterity. He just sent the troops in and told them to enforce the law, which they did.

Maybe that's why the 1950s now seem so peaceful: We had a president who knew who he was. And he knew that we knew. So he didn't have to get up every morning and say: "My fellow Americans, remember me?"

You'll never see that again. Not unless you go off and hide in a cave. And even if you do, some other hermit will show up and say: "Just got the word: Another attorney general nominee went down the drain."

"Why, did she hire illegal aliens?"

"No, this one was an illegal alien."

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