A real leader

January 16, 1995|By Ray Jenkins

IN HIS UNCOMMONLY conciliatory inaugural remarks as Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich paid generous tribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the premier icon of liberal Democrats, as "the greatest president of this century." He then invited Democrats to reciprocate by reconsidering Ronald Reagan's achievements.

As one who has voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since I cast my first vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1952, no doubt I am among those Mr. Gingrich was addressing. But since Mr. Gingrich chose his Democrat to praise, it's only fair that I be allowed to choose my Republican. And it is not Ronald Reagan; rather, it is Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Newt Gingrich promises to fulfill a 10-point "Contract With America," so let me cite 10 points of the contract which Ike fulfilled four decades ago:

1. With the support of such moderate Eastern Republicans as Maryland's Theodore R. McKelden (who nominated Ike for president), he wrested control of the Republican Party from the grip of rigidly ideological, isolationist conservatives who were then led by Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio.

2. Among his first acts as president, he speedily extricated our armies from the morass of the Korean War. In keeping with that wisdom, he wisely kept our "presence" in Vietnam to no more than a few hundred non-uniformed advisers, even though his hard line secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, almost certainly would have greatly enlarged that role had he had his way.

3. He created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare -- yes, much-maligned "welfare" -- and named the second woman cabinet member in history to head it. He initiated, in response to the Soviet challenge of supremacy in space, the first federal aid to states for education.

4. He nominated Earl Warren to be chief justice, and the libertarian Democrat, William J. Brennan, to be associate justice of the Supreme Court. When the Warren Court's authority was squarely on the line, Ike did not flinch at sending the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce court orders to desegregate public schools.

5. He initiated the largest public works program in history -- the Interstate Highway System.

6. He created the Civil Rights Commission, and signed the first federal laws since Reconstruction to extend the right to vote to disenfranchised blacks of the South.

7. He maintained warm and productive relationships with leading Democrats in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Walter F. George.

8. He maintained fairly high marginal tax rates for the rich and kept the country on a steady economic course despite the customary cyclical recessions.

9. He largely avoided the arms race that his successor, John Kennedy, set into motion.

10. He closed his presidency with a candid warning about the growing influence of the military-industrial complex.

Were I able to recast my votes of 1952 and 1956, they would be cast without hesitation for Dwight Eisenhower. His centrist consensus politics -- which sees government as capable of doing some things quite well -- is, alas, hard to find in a dangerously polarized Washington.

In this time of the collapse of the political center, you can count this embattled moderate Democrat as one who yearns for Republicans like Ike. I suspect that if the genial hero-president were around today, he'd be reflecting a good deal, as I have lately, on the poet William Butler Yeats' somber warning written in the fateful years between the world wars:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Ray Jenkins is the former editor of The Evening Sun's editorial page.

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