The sun rises slowly in southern Pennsylvania, ushering in a day full of promise and potential. Dawn near my country cottage is not the same call to pulse-raising political warfare as it is in the nation’s capital – where adrenaline starts pumping with the morning headlines. There in the quiet of the countryside, silence and space allows one to ease into the day’s challenges.
From that perspective it is possible to look back at Washington and wonder if the nation’s policymakers really understand what they are doing. This morning, like so many other ones these days, the newspaper has catastrophe written all over it. Our morning read is full of struggle, fight and alarm. Who will be blamed for the sequester? How long will the fight go on? Are you the only Washington organization that has not been hacked by the Chinese? According to reports, any institution or computer of any importance here has been the subject of an attack. (I wonder how many status-conscious Washingtonians would be disappointed to discover that the Chinese didn’t deem them important enough to bother.) And I will not even go into the nuclear tests in North Korea and all the other things happening around the world…
Where are our “leaders” who should be grappling with these delicate and potentially damaging developments? The House of Representatives was in session only eight days in January. And the Senate plans to be together only 194 days the entire year. Between their absences from the city and Obama’s perpetual campaign tours to persuade the population that his opponents are wrong, it is no wonder that nothing gets done. No one is in Washington at the same time. So how could they possibly even talk, let alone reach compromise?
With the impending sequester and a debt ceiling crisis looming, the stress level for many people in this city is palpable. Columnists are wrong if they think the consequences can be contained and that the major impact will be confined to furloughs and lay-offs. Many of us who have some dealings with the federal government can say that the ripple effect has already started. For some time, government agencies have been deferring decisions because of the uncertainty, directly impacting companies that are poised to provide even the most basic of services. Other government entities are cancelling events and other activities out of concern for what they think would be unfavorable “optics.” Many important projects have been shelved, even some that serve the vital interests of this country as we reinvigorate our economy and strive to retain our competitive global edge. The uncertainty that has spawned this anxious withdrawal, and the deterioration of trust that has gone with it, speaks poorly of our elected officials and political parties. This has not happened because the nation is divided. It has happened because we don’t have leadership.
Long walks in the countryside can be physically restorative and mentally reinvigorating. This time of the year, the cold, dry bite in one’s nose sharpens the senses and affirms the glory of being alive. Why are we doing this to ourselves? What are our politicians saving themselves for? Why won’t they spend more of their prestige to find some common-sense solutions that will benefit the country as a whole? These are the kinds of questions that come to mind in the silence and the space of a long unpaved road.
Earlier this month I arrived in Santa Monica to participate in a Milken Institute Forum with Evan Thomas, former Newsweek columnist and political biographer. After a long and arduous trip, marked by severe turbulence and delays, I poured myself into a comfortable chair at my hotel’s rooftop restaurant. “Long journey today? Where are you from?” the waiter asked. When I replied Washington D.C., the tall young man’s eyes danced. “Washington D.C.? That place is hilarious!!”
Hilarious? Harry Truman once remarked that if you want a friend in Washington you’d better get a dog. And John F. Kennedy quipped that “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” But hilarious? That’s a new one. Then I got to thinking about what this place must look like to young people outside of the city.
Only in Washington would a man of Chuck Hagel’s stature be put on the defensive, for being deemed right by the American people in his opposition to a war in Iraq that had no post-conflict plan. Why aren’t the promoters of the flawed strategy called to account instead of the guy who got it right?
Only in Washington would the CEO of the National Rifle Association go about his daily routine with a small army of bodyguards – while simultaneously defending his organization’s advertisement that blasts the country’s elite for having armed guards while the public does not.
Only in Washington would our country’s legislators hold the American economy hostage with an artificial fiscal cliff they themselves constructed and defined. This long-term problem was intentionally turned into a short-term crisis—to save them from themselves. The trouble is it could plunge the country back into a recession – and Congress knew this.
Finally, only in Washington, on the eve of the State of the Union speech and amid a national conversation on gun control, would a freshman Republican congressman feel comfortable inviting Ted Nugent, outspoken right-wing gun rights advocate, as his guest to the State of the Union address. Last year, Nugent was interviewed by the Secret Service for incendiary remarks he made about President Obama’s physical safety.
All of this would be funny or maybe even ironic, if it weren’t so scary. What does this say about this city? What does it say about us?
Last week, I was asked to appear on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports to discuss my concerns with an NRA web video that compares school security to the protection requirements of the president’s daughters. The widespread outcry over the ad may have prompted even some at the NRA to question the judgment of running it. As small a step as this may seem, there appears to be growing sentiment that it is inappropriate for people – on either side of this issue – to involve any children in this debate.
During the Reagan years, one of my politically attuned daughters always refused to voice her opinion on the president’s speeches until she’d read the full text in the newspaper the next day. Smart girl. On Monday, minutes after President Obama gave his Second Inaugural Address, my take on it was more positive than it was after I had read the written copy.
Inaugural addresses, given every four years, are opportunities for a president to make history by articulating a vision for the country that will resonate now and possibly through the ages. President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech got off to a good start, but ultimately fell short. Rather than helping to unite the country, by speaking to all Americans, he chose to energize primarily his party. He did not speak to the Republicans he will have to negotiate with in the coming months and years, nor did he focus much on global security issues. I wanted the president to outline the grand strategy he will advance in leading this country and the world through the perilous times ahead. But his remarks were mostly domestic in nature. And the only time he alluded to leadership was in the context of clean energy.
What President Obama did do was demonstrate energy and resolve. These are welcome attributes, which will serve him well if he remembers that his job performance and his legacy will depend on moving all Americans forward, not just constituents of his own political party.
Interviewed within minutes of the speech, I spoke to Jeremy Thompson in London on Sky News:
In 2008, just after Barack Obama was elected president, I gave a television interview regarding what the Obamas might expect on becoming the new first family. I was asked specifically how Malia and Sasha’s lives would change. For a start, I said, they won’t play outside anymore without armed guards.
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On hearing of the birth of his granddaughter, President Herbert Hoover was reputed to have said, “Thank God she doesn’t have to be confirmed by the Senate.”
In that regard, perhaps not much has changed in Washington since the 31st president’s time, although the whole process seems more fractious than ever before, especially in today’s media-drenched environment.
In the past month we have seen an unprecedented public vetting, a virtual “trial in absentia” of two potential cabinet nominees: U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for secretary of state and former Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. These searing spectacles were painful to watch, and they will make more than a few future public servants think twice about subjecting themselves to such battles.
Last week, President Obama did the right thing and finally nominated Senator Hagel for secretary of defense. Whatever happens, President Obama is in a no-lose situation. If Hagel is confirmed, the president gets his choice—a brave and seasoned foreign policy and defense expert. If Hagel is rejected—and this move would only be led by Hagel’s own party—President Obama will likely watch the inevitable weakening of the GOP, as disgusted Republican moderates think yet again about the direction of their party.
Most of the opposition to Hagel’s nomination has been centered around his views on Israeli security and his attitude toward gay public servants. By now the country’s A-list of elder statesmen and analysts have refuted the accusations against the former senator. Additionally, both AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel interest group, and the Human Rights Campaign, the influential gay-equality group, have indicated that they will not oppose Hagel’s confirmation.
Despite what should be a resolution of these concerns, there are still those who charge that Hagel’s thinking on military policy is “outside the mainstream” on defense spending and nuclear developments in Iran. Ironically, even the Defense Department has acknowledged that it is “bloated,” and while some policymakers have blasted Hagel for seeking direct negotiations with Iran over its contested nuclear program, they would do well to look to the past. Throughout the Cold War, Republicans and Democrats alike met repeatedly with their Soviet counterparts, even though the Communist ideology and the Soviets’ possession of the hydrogen bomb were existential threats to the United States.
On the issue of sanctions, Hagel’s approach also has its place in our national security traditions. All thinking politicians have grappled with finding the right balance between diplomatic pressure and the threat or use of military force. Unilateral measures, without an international agreement to impose them, can potentially have counterproductive results—which might range from reducing the U.S.’s maneuvering room to producing an indigenous groundswell of support for a besieged authoritarian regime. Hagel has been right to think in a nuanced way. In policy terms this has always been, apparently until recently, a highly prized attribute. This also happens to be where most ordinary Americans stand today.
I have known and worked with Senator Hagel for decades now, first when he served as a board member of the Eisenhower Institute, later during his time in the Senate, and then again when we both served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He is a man who has always put his country first. Like those of the greatest generation before him, he knows of the cost and unpredictability of war. He is ready to wage war if necessary, but not until other measures have been tried. He is a veteran, a pragmatist and a staunch supporter of this country’s allies, including Israel. The smear campaign that has been underway is the work of a small group of people in pursuit of their own power. A vocal minority should not be allowed to derail his nomination.
At the end of the day, however, the impact of the Hagel nomination could well be about the future of the Republican Party.
The Republican Party is now at a crossroads. Over the last decade moderate Republicans have felt increasingly out of place in its ranks. If the GOP confirms Hagel, it could bolster the idea of a “big tent” Republican Party. A GOP-led rejection of a Republican war hero with impeccable centrist credentials, however, could well be a fatal blow to that concept, along with some of the party’s longest and most successful traditions.
On the nomination of Hagel, GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who has been an admirer of Senator Hagel in the past—vowed that Hagel would get a “fair hearing” when he comes before the Senate. This is reassuring indeed. President Obama deserves to have his selection of Hagel confirmed by the Senate. But if the Republicans block his confirmation, watch while more loyal rank and file GOP moderates flee the party for independent status.
2012 brings to a close one of the most politically exhausting times I can remember. The presidential election was the culmination of a campaign that went on literally for years. It ended with the victory of President Barack Obama, just as the nation embarked on a harrowing ride to the fiscal cliff.
Washington is a city that lives and even thrives on stress and the emotional highs and lows that come with it. But the last eighteen months have been unusual, and often especially unpleasant. Despite this, I come to the end of a very tough year buoyed by what I will call the “magic many” – that is, the many personal and public reasons why I am feeling upbeat.
The inspiration for this blog post came from The American Jewish Historical Society’s annual dinner earlier this week. The AJHS was honoring the Monuments Men for the indispensable role these 345 uniformed men and women, from thirteen countries, played during World War II. They saved millions of priceless artistic works, cultural artifacts and documents, including the Mona Lisa. Under orders from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, they were dispatched across Europe — even in the heat of battle – to rescue, restore and return to their owners the treasures that the Nazis had looted.
That evening I was seated next to Carol Wall, a philanthropist and one of the Society’s supporters. “The 1950s,” she told me, “were years of gratitude…. For my family it was a time of vast relief that the loneliness and uncertainty of the war years were behind them.” She talked about the power and poignancy of being able to do simple things again, like barbequing beef on the backyard grill.
Carol’s words got me thinking. Even if there seems to be no relief in sight on the current public policy and political front (the debt ceiling fight is up next), it is never too soon to focus on gratitude. So, here is a small selection of the things that have meant a great deal to me this year. They are not necessarily numbered in order of importance.
- The Opportunity to Interact with Rising Generations: In September I gave the opening address to the incoming class of White House Fellows, an event that has become something of a tradition. This ongoing relationship has given me considerable faith in the caliber of young leaders who are coming into positions of power. This was reinforced in early November when I took four students from Gettysburg College with me to West Point to participate in a conference designed and run by the cadets called the Student Conference on United States Affairs. What a lift it was for me to watch civilian students and cadets discuss together the myriad of issues facing this country. My students reported that the event left them with a “new sense of optimism” about the future. In watching civilian and military undergraduates together, I could only share their confidence and excitement.
- My Father’s New Books: John S. D. Eisenhower’s distinguished career as a military historian has not abated for one moment. This year he came out with two wonderful books: Soldiers and Statesmen: Reflections on Leadership (University of Missouri Press) and Mabuhay: Coming of Age in the Philippines (Ferrous Books). Mabuhay features more than forty original photos taken in the 1930s by John, with a camera given to him by his father, Dwight Eisenhower. The hardback version of the book is a signed, limited edition. It is also available in paperback. Both books demonstrate his remarkable historic reach.
- The Help from My Friends: This year a handful of people gave me unstinting support, for which I will always be grateful. They were also part of a larger group that seemingly appeared out of nowhere and helped my family protest the design for the Eisenhower Memorial, along with hundreds of well-wishers from across the country who contacted us or wrote publically about the memorial. They provided the wind at our backs. These wonderful people know who they are.
- The Lives of Fellow Colleagues: I will mourn the passing but will always celebrate the lives of Greg Guroff and Spurgeon Keeney. Greg was a Russia expert, former USIA official and founder of the Foundation for International Arts and Education. Greg never stopped trying to improve US-Soviet /US-Russian relations. How fortunate I was to call him my friend and colleague. Spurgeon was trained as a Russianist, but had a distinguished career in many high level defense jobs which led him, eventually, into arms control advocacy. Spurgeon and I served on the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on International Security and Arms Control for many years. Throughout his career he mentored many of the leading professionals in the international security field today. Both men will long be remembered.
- The People Who Preserve the Past: After decades of selfless service to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and then the Eisenhower Foundation, Mack Teasley is retiring. He will be impossible to replace. At other institutions, including AJHS (above), I admire the remarkable work of Kim Sajet at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Tim White at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. I spent three unforgettable days visiting that exceptional museum and roaming Buffalo Bill territory.
- The American Voter: Despite the Super Pacs and the flood of other money, the people who flocked to the polls this November could not be “bought.”
- Glenn Kessler—“The Fact Checker”: No one should be able to get away with misleading statements or lies. Thank goodness they can’t get away with it now.
- The Readers of This Blog: For every person who leaves a comment on this site, many more people find a way to reach me privately. What fun I had this year, sharing my thoughts and hearing your responses. Not only did the number of readers rise exponentially, exceeding 50,000 readers on some days, but it was read regularly in 74 countries.
As the year draws to a close, I will stand back and reflect with gratitude on the many people this year who enriched my life. I hope you will, too.
Happy holidays and very best wishes for a productive and happy new year.
On December 7, 2012, Susan Eisenhower gave an interview to Sky News on Hillary Clinton’s legacy as Secretary of State:
When I was a young adult, people used to joke that if the political situation got any worse they would simply move to Australia. When I notified a few of my friends that I would be taking a trip to Canberra and then Sydney after the election, several people wrote me and asked: “Are you planning on coming back?”
Who can blame anyone for such wise cracks? Despite feeling relieved that the election is finally over and that the nation has spoken decisively, we are left with addressing now a series of divisive, dispiriting issues. This is not being helped by the fact that the conduct of the campaign was often brutal or unbecoming. In addition, too much money was spent and there was little debate about how to tackle the nation’s problems. The thrust of the election for both sides was all tactical, with the principle aim of proving the unsuitability of the other candidate. In the end, I believe the voters selected the right candidate. But ultimately, the vote was driven more by fear and contempt (for the other party) than an endorsement of a coherent national direction.
This offers both an opportunity and a danger for President Obama. If he doesn’t set an entirely new tone and give Republicans a way to “save face,” his second term could be imperiled – and this could have a lasting impact on his legacy. His alternative is to seize some obvious openings.
Here are several thoughts on what Obama should do:
1. Save political capital for when it really counts.
History has shown that second presidential terms can be perilous. That’s why Obama must be careful to pick the right fights. The “trial balloon” of Susan Rice for Secretary of State, for instance, should not be one of the places Obama spends his hard-earned political capital. He must preserve it for tackling one or possibly two big transformational challenges.
2. Bind the wounds.
The president needs to turn the atmosphere created by the negative presidential campaign into something positive: a national approach to our long-term challenges. Simply trying to empower the middle class is not an overarching strategy. With another war winding down, global economic shifts underway, and debt and recovery challenges in the U.S., the country needs the president to articulate a broad vision for the nation – not just a dissertation on tax policy or the government’s relationship with its citizens.
As soon as is feasible, the president would do well to travel to one or more of the Red States. Though Obama lost the Midwest and the South, he may have more in common with the residents of those rural areas than his handlers might think. Of strong Midwest stock himself, Obama has the opportunity to demonstrate some political bravery by wandering into seemingly hostile territory. He has been the epitome of a family man; this can help provide some useful touchstones. He can also make the case to those in conservative small-town America that, like their urban equivalents, he understands they suffer from limited opportunity and wants to do something about that.
Now is also the time to start talking with the business community. During the election, big-moneyed interests used the GOP’s social conservatives and working ranks to try and ratify arrangements that were primarily for their benefit. But Donald Trump and Jack Welch, for instance, are hardly icons of conservative lifestyles or values. Many of the unfounded conspiracy theories they advanced during the campaign were aimed at rallying those “impressionable others” into voting against their own economic interests. While this may be a sad and cynical turn in our electoral politics, they do not represent the views of all of America’s wealthy. More should be done to gather their ideas for moving forward. Raising taxes will never be enough. The future of everything, from economic prosperity to reducing income inequality, cannot be achieved without an economy that is growing. For this, it will require all hands on deck.
3. Give Americans a new way to think about the economy.
The president and the country will be helped considerably if the current fiscal crisis is put into context. It is more important than ever for us to understand the nature of our national strategic challenges and to see tax and revenue policy as only a means to an end. Finding the right balance of income and expenses is not just a way to avert a debt crisis; it is one of a number of measures that will assure our national strength and security. Under such a banner all Americans would be willing, as they have been in the past, to sacrifice something for our country’s national security.
On my recent visit to Australia I could easily see why people, in jest or otherwise, would hold out the island continent as an alternative to home. The country is beautiful and the Aussies are fun and unpretentious. These are tempting attributes for any modern society.
That’s why we cannot allow the United States to become a nation of “farnarklers,” a word they use Down Under for talkers who never get anything done. We, who live in the United States, need President Obama to lead and inspire us all – so we can ensure that America will remain the envy of the world.
Last week the Associated Press ran a story about the Eisenhower Memorial and the delay of its consideration by the National Capital Planning Commission. Since this issue is a public matter, our family is publishing the full letter quoted in the story. The letter, posted below, was written by John S.D. Eisenhower to Senator Daniel Inouye, vice chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. My father, John S.D. Eisenhower, is the only surviving child of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower and executor of his father’s will.