Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ike & Joe & Mitt & Donald

Nearly 60 years ago, during the 1952 presidential campaign, Dwight D. Eisenhower had to work hard to unite a potentially fractious Republican Party. In the nomination fight, he had vanquished Sen. Robert Taft, whom Ike considered dangerously isolationist in his foreign policy. Eisenhower also had to contend with the anti-communist demagoguery of Joe McCarthy.

Two years earlier, McCarthy had quickly made a name for himself by claiming to have a list (which he never, of course, produced) of known Communist Party members who were employed by the State Department. While he never uncovered a single actual Communist, McCarthy's bluster kept his name in the papers.

Privately, Ike expressed his contempt for McCarthy."I will not get into the gutter with this guy," he told aides who encouraged him to publicly denounce the Wisconsin senator.

But late in the campaign, in October 1952, Eisenhower faced a decision. McCarthy had slandered George C. Marshall, the United States Army Chief of Staff during World War II and Secretary of State and then Secretary of Defense under President Truman. McCarthy called Marshall "a man steeped in falsehood," and suggested that he had deliberately sabotaged American policy in China: "If Marshall were merely stupid, the laws of probability would dictate that part of his decisions would serve this country's interest."

As Truman later pointed out, Marshall was "the man who had done more for Eisenhower than anyone else on earth.... Every major promotion that Eisenhower got, every major assignment, came about because George Marshall recommended it or ordered it."

Eisenhower and McCarthy, Oct. 1952.
Photo by Robert Boyd, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society
So what would Ike do: defend his mentor Marshall or appease the demagogue McCarthy? His first instinct was to do the former. He was headed for McCarthy's home state, and his speech writers prepared a draft praising Marshall. His aides leaked word of that to the press. McCarthy heard and managed to board Ike's campaign train on its way to Milwaukee, and argued that Ike should omit those statements. Though he reportedly reacted with "red-hot anger" to McCarthy, Ike caved. He appeared on the same platform with McCarthy, removed the praise of Marshall from his speech, and echoed some of McCarthy's anti-communist rhetoric.

Truman was appalled. He thought Marshall "one of the most decent and honorable men this country has ever produced." He wrote privately that the incident showed Ike was "chickenhearted" and a "weak man cowering at a mental image of McCarthy's pugnacious face and rasping voice."

The recent spectacle of Mitt Romney attending a fund-raiser with Donald Trump brought this old story to mind, because it raises the same questions of character in politics. Trump, of course, has made himself notorious as the most prominent proponent of the discredited idea that President Obama was not born in Hawaii. Romney has received a fair amount of heat for his embrace of Trump. When asked about it, he replied:

"You know I don’t agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in." This is no doubt true. It is also irrelevant. No reasonable person believes that candidates for office are personally responsible for all of the views of all of their supporters.

Romney and Trump, Feb. 2012.
Steve Marcus / Reuters
But that was not the issue. This was no run-of-the-mill supporter. This was someone famous, whose recent notoriety is due to spouting a demonstrably false conspiracy theory about Romney's opponent.

This is someone with whom Romney chose to do a fund-raiser. It is entirely fair to assume that choosing to share a stage with someone implies there are no important disagreements with that individual.

The question to Romney really should have been: "Is there anything Donald Trump could say that would lead you to forego doing a fund-raiser with him?"

Presumably the answer is "yes," which then leads to the follow-up: why doesn't Trump's birther nonsense meet that standard? After all, what Trump is suggesting is that the President of the United States is illegitimate and a fraud. Romney knows this, but it changes nothing about his relationship with Trump. Why does Romney choose to associate with someone who stoops to such baseless demagoguery?

Fortunately, Romney answered that question without it being asked: "I need to get 50.1 percent or more." In other words, his answer is no different that the one Eisenhower would given: it was politics.

Romney's shape-shifting from moderate to "severely conservative" means that the conservative Republican base does not trust him. Many of those same people consistently express doubt that the president was born in the U.S.A. So Romney indirectly panders to them by embracing their spokesman, even as he tries to maintain credibility with sane voters by accepting the facts about Obama's birthplace.

Eisenhower had a similar problem. As a career military man, no one even knew which political party he belonged to until shortly before the 1952 campaign. He defeated "Mr. Republican" (Robert Taft) for the nomination, but still had to prove himself to the far right McCarthyites. He tried to do that by choosing Sen. Richard Nixon as his running mate (Nixon, due to his role in the Alger Hiss case, was seen as the smart man's McCarthy).

But it was not enough. It never is for the politically rabid. McCarthy bullied Ike into forsaking the man most responsible for the fact that Eisenhower was ever considered a potential president. For Eisenhower, it worked politically. He cruised to victory in 1952. But it sullied his reputation as a man of personal loyalty and honor.

It may work politically for Romney, too. His willingness to get down in the gutter with Trump, his refusal to scorn the chief proponent of birtherism, however, makes it hard to see Romney as a man of character. And so his problem becomes circular--because there is no "there" there, he constantly needs to pander to the base; the more he panders to the base, the more he proves that there really is no "there" there.


  1. I think you meant "does NOT trust him".

  2. Sure did--thanks for catching that and letting me know.

  3. Could a Romney-Trump ticket really happen? I've been thinking it would be a low point, but thanks to your insight, it' to know it's not. Sigh.

  4. No, no more than an Eisenhower-McCarthy ticket could ever have happened. But I'd guess Romney will likely choose someone who passes the Tea Party's acceptability test.