Distinguished lecturer at Macaulay Honors College of CUNY
Many Americans remember the 1950s as a banal time of sock hops and drive-ins, but the decade began badly, with a nasty war in Korea, constant friction with China and Russia, and bitter sniping between Republicans and Democrats, who were no longer interested in the consensus that had led America to victory in World War II. In the final two years of Harry Truman’s presidency, the nation’s capital turned angry and dysfunctional. Congress and the White House were at odds; financial scandals plagued the administration; and an ugly new politics of bullying, perfected by Repulican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, was rising quickly.
McCarthy’s favorite target was the State Department, where he claimed to know of more than 50 “card-carrying Communists.” As the Red Scare deepened, McCarthy and his allies also pursued an aggressive “Lavender Scare,” concentrating on public servants who were gay in a time that was deeply closeted. Hundreds resigned or were fired.
This was the chaotic state of the country in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower decided to run for president. Typically, presidential campaigns are all about noise and change, but Eisenhower instinctively understood how deeply Americans wanted to calm down and get back to normal, and his intuition proved to be correct. As Joe Biden finishes up the last few weeks of his campaign, in a country marred by hyperpartisanship and disorder, he could do worse than to study the quiet way Eisenhower helped his party to win.
Eisenhower was barely a politician as the year began—he was known to millions, of course, as the hero of D-Day, but his political talents were not well understood. People were not even certain that he was a Republican (Democrats were also approaching him to run). But he declared his affiliation with the GOP, and early in 1952 began to run in earnest.
To unite the country, Eisenhower first had to bring together his own party, which was no simple matter. A deeply conservative Ohio senator, Robert Taft, wanted the nomination for himself. “Mr. Republican,” as Taft was known, held important cards as a party insider, but he lacked charisma, and his cranky isolationism put him at odds with the party’s more moderate wing, centered in New York and New England. These East Coast Republicans gravitated naturally to Eisenhower, whose sparkling résumé included stints as the president of Columbia University and as NATO’s supreme commander.
No one would call Eisenhower a scintillating speaker, and he looked older than his 62 years. But he understood that less could be more, and his calming speeches stood in sober contrast to the heated rhetoric of the times.
A strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, then in its infancy, helped to lift his chances, and at the GOP convention, in Chicago, Eisenhower won the nomination on the first ballot. Party leaders seeking generational and geographic diversity selected a young senator from California as his running mate—another way in which 2020 echoes 1952 (although any similarity between Richard Nixon and Kamala Harris stops there).
The Democrats also met in Chicago, where they nominated Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson as their candidate. He gave an eloquent nomination address and continued to speak incandescently all summer and fall, giving lucid speeches on the serious problems Americans faced.
But Eisenhower understood that professorial lectures were not the way to win. (His university experience surely contributed to that insight.) Instead, he pursued a policy of strategic blandness, offering little in the way of details, but projecting the aura of a reliable, seasoned leader. His speeches were so vague—in his convention address, he spoke of the “shining promise of tomorrow”—that reporters called him “Extremely General Eisenhower,” and complained that he was approaching the “38th platitude,” a reference to the line dividing Korea.
The critique, though, did little to change him. He continued to speak in broad, accessible language, mixing conservative themes with a liberal commitment to “a program of progressive politics.” Even his occasional verbal stumbles helped him, projecting authenticity and character at a time when voters were worried about how angry politics had become. Eisenhower promised “to unite us wherever we have been divided,” and Americans yearned for exactly that.
Eisenhower proved to be an able tactician and skillfully used television—a powerful new force in 1952—to project a serene vision of executive leadership. He was 10 years older than Stevenson, but his team of Madison Avenue ad executives, who understood lighting and camera angles, reduced that disadvantage. Throughout the summer and fall, they commissioned short spots that showed Eisenhower adeptly answering questions from audience members. (In fact, they were staged.) One of their most effective ads did not show him at all. Cartoons and jingles implied that life would be pleasant and maybe even fun in a Republican America. A brilliantly concise slogan, “I like Ike,” said it all.
Stevenson misinterpreted Eisenhower’s strategy and complained that his opponent was “selling the presidency like cereal,” pointing out, a bit too proudly, that he did not even own a TV. Americans, glued to their sets, did not need to hear that.
A natural centrist, Eisenhower knew what everyday concerns motivated citizens. He understood—as many of his fellow Republicans did not—that the New Deal had made a permanent difference in the lives of ordinary Americans, and he worked to calm any concerns that they had about how his presidency might affect those programs. In language that would be hard to imagine today, the Republican nominee said, “Social Security, housing, workman’s compensation, unemployment insurance … are the things that must be kept above and beyond politics and campaigns.”
As in 2020, women voters were crucial, especially in the spreading suburbs. In a deft move, the Eisenhower campaign reached out to them, encouraging them to host parties, talk about the issues that affected them every day, and get to know their neighbors. Grassroots groups, called “Citizens for Eisenhower,” appealed to Democrats and independents, building a network of neighborhood activists who talked over back fences and on front porches. Ironically, these citizen groups would outlast the moderate Eisenhower administration, and propel the future campaigns of far more conservative Republicans, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Pundits expected the election to be close, but Eisenhower won in a landslide, with 55 percent of the popular vote and 39 of 48 states.
Eisenhower’s era was far from perfect—segregation continued to dominate the South long after the first inroads of the civil-rights movement, and racial and gender discrimination were widespread in all parts of the country. He also did not criticize McCarthyism as forcefully as he should have. Still, the federal government did its job. The post office delivered the mail, and people paid their taxes (at rates that Bernie Sanders admires). Most notably, Republicans and Democrats ran hard against each other, but after the votes were counted, they worked together on the people’s business. The country prospered, respected in the world, relatively united at home. A more normal politics returned. If Biden wins, let’s hope he can do the same.