“I think the key to Obama’s long-term success is being Obama: the calm, restrained, sober, reasonable adult in the room, always focused on actual problems and their feasible solutions,” Sullivan comments. “He’s an Eisenhower in a room full of McCarthys. It may take some patience but we all know who won that game in the end.”
That struck a chord with me. Not only did I just share a story about my father’s forlorn hopes for Stevenson in 1956, I recently finished reading Rick Perlstein’s fascinating Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which gives one an idea of the breathtaking forces that were arrayed against Eisenhower on his right.
Urban, Jewish liberals like my father didn’t appreciate how rabid America’s far right was. Sure, they feared McCarthy–but they mistook Eisenhower’s studied blandness for complacency and his inertia for political reaction. Kennedy’s election and then the Goldwater campaign lifted the lid off the Pandora’s Box that Eisenhower had been sitting on for eight years.
“People think of history in the long term,” Philip Roth wrote in American Pastoral, “But history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.” When it hits you in the face, yes–when planes are steered into skyscrapers, when a financial panic empties your bank account, when your children are drafted and sent off to war.
But sometimes events and personalities and decisions that we think we have a thorough understanding of–and a lot of pundits and politicians seem all-too-certain that they know precisely what this week’s election signifies and portends–turn out to look very different in hindsight. Eisenhower and the Eisenhower years certainly do.