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Published: Sunday, 12/4/2005

Ike is transformed - a second time

There are people alive who remember when Dwight D. Eisenhower was the greatest military hero of the age, the man who saved Europe from tyrants and gave democracy a second chance. There are people alive who remember him as an amiable drifter with a short attention span, a befuddled speaker who seemed to have his greatest presidential moments on the fairway and putting green. There are people alive who think of him as a managerial giant, a political sage whose "hidden hand" guided America to peace and prosperity in the difficult years of mid-century.

In the course of six decades no one has been the subject of revisionism among historians and re-envisioning among members of the public as much as Eisenhower. Harry Truman, who preceded him, is remarkable in that, in the nation's memory and on its bookshelves, his profile has been dramatically transformed. But Eisenhower is even more remarkable. He's in his second transformation.

Now the nation is preparing to make its latest view of Eisenhower - architect of D-Day and Allied triumph in Europe in World War II, supreme commander of NATO in its important early years, 34th president of the United States - permanent. The other day the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission approved a memorial for Eisenhower in Washington.

But it isn't just the fact that the memorial was approved that is striking. It is also the location of the plaza-style memorial: a four-acre site that gives Eisenhower a presence in the capital roughly commensurate with that of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The memorial is still far from reality. There is no design, no agreement on the content of the memorial, and, the site being Washington, other advisory groups must be consulted. Eisenhower was never the master of the aphorism, but he would have appreciated this one: Even when something seems settled in Washington, it's not really settled.

But there will be a memorial, and it will almost certainly be a fanfare for the common man, which is what Eisenhower was in the best American sense, and also in some ways the mark of his leadership. For it was a common man (though one of uncommon intelligence and valor, and of course with a smile of uncommon warmth) who, in what Henry A. Wallace called the century of the common man, mobilized common men by the millions to recapture Europe from the Nazis and, in the decade that followed, to preserve Europe from the Soviets.

"As we get more and more presidents," says Michael Birkner, a Gettysburg College historian who has written a short biography of Eisenhower and is finishing a book called Electing Ike, "Eisenhower looks better and better."

The odd thing about this memorial is the odd thing about the Lincoln Memorial. Like Lincoln, Eisenhower wouldn't have wanted it.

There is a good argument to be made that the greatest monument to Eisenhower is, in the felicitous phrase that oftentimes crops up in social commentary, the way we live today. We live in freedom - a special sort of freedom from want and from oppression. Europe is free in the way the term was defined a half-century ago: It has a bustling market system and, by and large, freely elected governments that for the most part respect basic human rights and freedoms. Most of all, the Cold War stayed cold throughout most of the Eisenhower years and into the years of four presidents who served along with him in World War II: John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and George H.W. Bush.

The war made Eisenhower, and like the Civil War before it, which produced five of the seven presidents who followed Lincoln, it made his successors, shaped their view of the world, and defined for them the role America should play in it.

Scholars and commentators will disagree about Eisenhower's legacy. They will ask whether he might have been more aggressive in battling racism, or whether he might have taken on Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin earlier and with more fervor, or whether he might have hesitated to send American troops to Vietnam, or even whether he might have handled the rebellion in Cuba differently. These are big questions, and legitimate ones, which is why there never will be an end to history, even if the phrase is a beguiling one.

Tales like these (and, alas, columns like these) always have a lesson, and this one is no exception. Today's moral, for presidents present and future is this: Don't worry about your legacy. Posterity has a mind of its own.

"Presidents don't get to control how they're regarded, " says Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and former director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. "It's a cautionary lesson for presidents who think they can shape how posterity sees them. You can't even control whether somebody builds a monument for you."

Eisenhower would have liked the first part, for unlike Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he was confident in history's verdict and didn't feel his legacy needed a helpful nudge. Chances are Eisenhower would be reconciled to the second part, for though he was too modest to think he should stand with Washington and Jefferson and the other icons of America, it may be that very modesty that assured that he will.



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