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America Needs Real Leadership

February 9, 2012

Kasey Pipes, Presidential Speech writer and EI Norris Fellow of Public Policy

More than 50 years after his presidency and 40 years after his death, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s legacy remains alive and well. New books appear almost every year re-evaluating the 34th president’s achievements. His stock among historians has never been higher.

But to see Ike’s legacy, we need not look at history books. A glance at today’s headlines will do. As America continues to face domestic and foreign policy challenges, Ike’s record provides clues as to what the hero of D-Day might say were he alive today.

A struggling economy? Ike believed government should be run like a business: balance the budget and make key investments to produce long-term dividends. The result? A decade of economic growth, the construction of the Interstate Highway System, and major federal contributions to education and science.

A world on the brink? Ike understood the grim realities of the Cold War and believed America should seek cooperation where possible but not fear confrontation when necessary. The result? A delicate peace that lasted until the chaos of the 1960s.

What united these policies was Ike’s belief that America needed leadership. He knew how to evaluate policy options, examine risks, and make difficult decisions, as he did during 1957’s Little Rock Central High Crisis. After Gov. Orval Faubus refused to admit nine African-American students to the school, Eisenhower carefully worked through a thicket of legal and political challenges. How would he enforce integration without enraging public opinion that was lukewarm at best on civil rights? How would he establish a legal precedent for enforcing Brown v. Board of Education? How would he keep the Little Rock Nine safe from mob violence?

He responded by working behind the scenes, building political support, and pressuring local leaders. When all else failed, he used military force to disperse the mob and protect the children. It worked. Within days the mob had disappeared and the integration of Little Rock Central High had succeeded.

For the past three years, Gettysburg College and the Eisenhower Institute have sponsored Inside Politics, a seminar where Gettysburg students study the art of politics up close and personal by meeting with Washington policymakers and conducting original research. Why do leaders make decisions? What motivates them? How different do challenges look from inside the White House than outside? Students also probe Ike’s handling of Little Rock to see how a leader makes decisions in the heat of battle. Nearly 50 students have participated; applications increase each semester. But perhaps the best measure of the program’s success is the students who have gone on to intern or work in Washington, D.C.

We are proud of these students. Ike would be too. Four decades ago, he had this advice for young people: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you. Don’t be afraid to reach upward.”

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