When Dwight David Eisenhower left the White House upon the completion of his two-term presidency on January 20, 1961, succeeded by John F. Kennedy, the worlds of academia and media generally gave his administration a rather mediocre grade. This was attributable to 1) The non-flamboyant and middle American style of Ike and his administration, which paled in comparison to the glamour of the New Frontier and Camelot; 2) the center-right ideological orientation of the Eisenhower administration, which presented an apparent contrast to the liberalism embraced by the then elite Washington insiders. Even when Eisenhower, an undisputed beloved American military hero passed away in March, 1969, the consensus verdict on his presidency did not change.
Nearly fifty years after the passing of Eisenhower, the prevailing assessment of his administration by presidential historians has risen dramatically. Ike is viewed by an overwhelming majority, rightfully so in my opinion, as a great or near great president.
Two recent surveys of political scientists and historians stand out in this regard. In a 2018 survey of 200 scholar members of the American Political Science Association, 57 percent of whom were Democrats, Ike was ranked as our seventh greatest president, behind only Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Truman. In 2017, the prestigious CSPAN survey of presidential historians, political scientists, and biographers, which had 91 participants, ranked Ike as our fifth greatest president, behind only Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt.
I believe that Ike’s greatness as both a president and supreme commanding general of the Allies during the Second World War qualifies him to be ranked as the greatest American of the 20th century. I can only ask the presidential historians: What took you so long?
Eisenhower was a Republican of the center-right. He aptly described the governing domestic policy guideline of his administration as “a liberal attitude toward the welfare of people and a conservative approach to the use of their money.” He did not believe in today’s Republican supply side orthodoxy of deep tax cuts, regardless of any deficit consequences. Eisenhower would only enact tax cuts that were paid for by commensurate budget cuts. He balanced the budget three times and achieved near budgetary balance in the other five.
This Eisenhower approach resulted in unsurpassed American peacetime economic prosperity. The American Gross Domestic Product in the Eisenhower administration grew by a record 60 percent, far exceeding the growth rate in any subsequent GOP administration, including those that embraced the supply side delusion. Today’s Republicans, who face a future trillion-dollar deficit resulting from the Trump tax cuts, need to study the Eisenhower prosperity.
Yet economic prosperity was far from the only Eisenhower success story.
During the campaign of 1952, Ike had promised to end the Korean War, which appeared to be a conflict hopelessly without end at the time of his January, 1953 inauguration. He achieved an armistice by July, 1953.
Ike made the decision for America not to intervene on behalf of the French colonialists in Vietnam in 1954, despite strong recommendations to do so from the then Vice President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. If only Eisenhower’s successors had had his wisdom.
Ike enacted in 1956 the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. In a nutshell, this legislation created our present Interstate Highways System, which made possible the growth and flourishing of American suburbia.
In his second term, Eisenhower became the first President in the twentieth century to enact and implement legislation advancing civil rights for African-Americans. In 1957, he made history by his enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, overcoming the opposition of then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. This was followed by his formulating and signing into law the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, the first civil rights legislation enacted since Reconstruction.
And finally, Eisenhower ended his administration with the greatest presidential farewell speech since that of George Washington in 1797. In a nationally televised address on Tuesday, January 17, 1961, Eisenhower gave the nation the following profound warning:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
New Jerseyans, like most Americans, are slowly but surely becoming aware of the greatness of the Eisenhower administration. Yet even New Jersey political insiders, except those over 65, are unaware of the good and great man who had the closest and most significant connection to Eisenhower, the presidential candidate and Eisenhower, the president.
The name of this gentleman, New Jersey’s prime connection to the Eisenhower legacy of greatness, was Bernard Michael Shanley (1903-1992), known affectionately by New Jerseyans of all political stripes as “Bern.” He is most remembered as the founder of the renowned law firm of Shanley and Fisher in 1933, later merged into the Drinker Biddle firm in 1999.
During World War 2, Bern Shanley served in the army, retiring in 1945 with the rank of captain. After returning to civilian life, Bern was called back into national service again, this time in 1952 as a top tier aide to presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower.
Bern had unlimited access to Ike during the campaign and was involved in every major decision. Example: When Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon was giving his famous “Checkers” speech that saved his campaign from scandal, Ike requested Bern to come to his hotel room and watch the speech with him and a few other top aides.
So it was natural that Ike would ask Bern Shanley to join his administration at its very outset in January, 1953. For five years, Bern was a major player in the inner circle of the Eisenhower White House. In fact, over the past 75 years, there was never a White House staff member, Republican or Democrat, from New Jersey who had more influence on presidential operations and policy than Bern.
Bern served as the President’s special counsel, appointment secretary and deputy chief of staff. He was the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, deciding who saw the President and for how long. He juggled the timetable of events, meetings and calls and managed the flow of documents and letters to be signed by the President.
Bern also received a number of Eisenhower White House special assignments. He served as a liaison to Congress, the State Department and the military, recommended legislation, and helped draft State of the Union addresses. Among his other special assignments were a revision of the Taft-Hartley Act and a National Security Council mission to Formosa regarding the islands of Quemoy and Matsu.
Bern was the Republican nominee for the New Jersey United States Senate seat in 1964. This was the year of the LBJ landslide, however, which swept to victory the incumbent Democratic Senator Harrison Williams, who resigned in disgrace in 1982 after his 1981 Abscam conviction. After the 1964 campaign, Bern served as the New Jersey Republican National Committeeman from 1968 until shortly before his death in 1992, a role in which he had served from 1960 until 1964.
Yet I would be remiss if I did not mention Bern’s role as the losing candidate in the 1958 GOP U.S. Senate primary. The winner of that primary was Congressman Bob Kean, father of Tom Kean and grandfather of Tom Kean, Jr. Bob will always be a special political hero to me for his role in speaking out on the floor of the House of Representatives for the admission to America of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and for his early advocacy of the establishment of a State of Israel.
The choice between Bern Shanley and Bob Kean was the most magnificent primary election choice New Jersey Republicans have ever had. Either would have been a great U.S. Senator. It was a shame that either had to lose the primary, and it was a true loss for the State of New Jersey that Bob Kean was defeated by Harrison Williams in the general election of 1958, the most difficult political year of the Eisenhower administration in which the Democrats scored huge gains in both the House and Senate races.
Given my special interest in sports history, of which my readers are well familiar, it gives me special pleasure to say that both Ike and Bern had special connections with the history of baseball!
Bern was a was a college roommate, fraternity brother, and baseball teammate of Lou Gehrig at Columbia during the early 1920s!
And Ike had a connection with baseball that is even closer to my heart. On Wednesday, October 3, 1956, he became the one and only president to attend a World Series game in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the home of my all-time favorite team, the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers.
When you speak of teams in the world of politics, the team of Dwight David Eisenhower and Bernard Michael Shanley was one of the greatest White House teams in American history. It was a team of which New Jersey can always be proud.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.