Why Eisenhower Matters Now
On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address, famously warning his fellow citizens about the dangers of the military industrial complex. But, as Fox News host Bret Baier documents in his new book Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission, the speech was far more complicated and important than that one subject. It hit on themes that still ring true in current American politics, and took the World War II hero more than a year to write. In an interview with The Daily Beast’s Editor in Chief John Avlon, Baier opens up about his book and the man he discovered while researching it.
JOHN AVLON: What attracted you to writing a book on Ike's farewell?
BRET BAIER: Well I did not know a lot even though I cover politics in Washington about Eisenhower's presidency. And I started thinking, “If I don't, our generation and younger probably doesn't either.”
I was looking to find an interesting moment in history to really dig into. So I went out to the library in Abilene, Kansas and talked to the folks out there and they said there have been, obviously, a lot of books written about Eisenhower but not a lot of intense focus on this transition between Eisenhower and Kennedy—and specifically the Farewell Address. So while I was there, it came out: they get the cardboard box and put the gloves on and they actually pulled out the speech with Eisenhower's writing and edits and underlines. And I thought “This is it. This is the vehicle by which I can look back at Eisenhower's presidency.”
JA: The core warning is about the rise of the military industrial complex. That's the line everyone knows from the speech. Did you feel that was something that would be an item of interest because it was so prescient?
BB: Definitely. I mean there's this thing that most people remember and it's the thing that all kinds of different groups have locked onto. But I really was trying to explore what was in Eisenhower's head as he formed that speech which he worked on for about a year and a half. He really wanted to have a blueprint of where he thought the country should go. It wasn't just that line and that warning: it was also concern about deficit and debt. Not mortgaging our children's future. Bipartisanship—a call for getting things done that both parties could agree to. The call for not getting involved in places, willy-nilly. Being very cautious and balanced in foreign policy.
JA: Those are basically the three core warnings of Washington's farewell address too.
BB: Exactly, and Eisenhower studied Washington a great deal. Obviously, he felt a kinship being a general who was kind of recruited into political office. He loved that farewell address and repeatedly in talking to speech writers, he points back to Washington.
JA: During the Obama era, the “military industrial complex” was something that civil libertarians of all stripes harken back to. How do you feel it's relevant—or has been misinterpreted—by some people for their own political purposes?
BB: Well, people have glommed on to it to make their own case. But Eisenhower was trying to make the case was that after World War II, when companies turned their equipment and personnel toward helping war became this big industry, funneling lobby money into lawmakers that people in the government were then leaving government to go become chairman on some board or leaving a company—and that cycle continued. He was most angry when he saw ads for missiles in Life Magazine or other magazines that people would read at home…There's a great story about when he's meeting with bipartisan lawmakers in the cabinet room and they're talking about how many missiles they're going to build that year and he gets really angry and he slams his big hand on the table and says, “God damn it, how many times do we have to kill a man.” His concern was that it was self-fulfilling.
JA: As you point out in the book, originally they were going to make it a troika: the military industrial congressional complex. You've covered Washington for so long: what's the story of why he dropped that and what was he thinking by flirting with it?
BB: Well, he was flirting with it because that was a big part of what he thought was the problem was: the congressional side. They were being influenced by all the money and the scientific side because the scientific community was roughly the same way, he believed at that time. He was going to put it all in there but shortened it because of, basically, diplomacy. But he didn't want to make them too mad that he was coming after them because later in the speech he wants to make a real pitch for bipartisanship, something he was successful on a number of fronts, mainly on the national highway bill.
JA: Washington was an independent president and Eisenhower thought about running for reelection as an independent. Some folks didn't feel he was conservative enough. But what lessons do you think that Eisenhower's bipartisanship and principled independence as an executive hold for the country now and for incoming president-elect Trump?
BB: Well I think it's very relevant now., Eisenhower called leadership “the ability to get things done and make the other guy think that it was his idea.” He said that about the relationship that he had with the Democratic Congress Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. He cultivated it. He made those relationships happen. He had his Sherman Adams and chief of staff called a bi-partisan caucus every month in the residence with the leaders and they had cocktails. They established relationships. Much like, you know Reagan and Tip O'Neill. I think that there's more to be done on that front. Eisenhower's message was, “get the things done that you can get done and then spend time fighting about the other things later.”
JA: Washington and Eisenhower were very focused on the principle of balance, particularly as it applied to financial affairs. Fiscal discipline used to have a constituency that was at the core of the conservative coalition. But it was not much of a subject in this election, least of all from president-elect Trump. What do you think Eisenhower's warnings about the importance of fiscal responsibility from a generational responsibility perspective – and how do they apply to our current era?
BB: I think they're even more applicable now. The debt was minuscule compared to what the debt is now at 20 trillion. Eisenhower was not an ideologue. He was recruited to office. They tried to get him to run as a Democrat. He ran as a Republican. There are parallels there. Obviously, Trump is not too ideological. I don't think you could paint him as an ideologue. There were people in the Republican Party who thought he was too liberal. There's obviously people in the Democratic party that think he's alt-right and conservative. I think there's potentially an opportunity there on the fiscal front, while he talks about a big infrastructure program and cutting taxes, there will be a check and balance in Congress about how much deficit spending he racks up.
JA: Do we need more Eisenhower Republicans? Do we need to rekindle that tradition?
BB: My ambition was to put a spotlight on that presidency and to talk about what we can learn. The book's dedication is to my sons Paul and Daniel and their generation: To always let history inform your decisions. I think we can just learn from that time and there are parallels from that time to this time. Whether you call them Eisenhower republicans or you call them practical democrats, it is about getting stuff across the finish line. Less ideological and more job centered. It was about listening to other people but at the end of the day he wanted to get stuff done. The thing that's different is that he did it in a very low key way and obviously this president, there’s not a lot low key. We'll see how he does behind the scenes.