Share this article

print logo

A loving portrait of Ike's golden years

David Eisenhower's new book, "Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969," offers many poignant, illuminating stories. This one stands out:

It was Thanksgiving 1967, and he and Julie, both 19, had just gotten engaged.

David Eisenhower knew that his grandfather was fond of Julie Nixon -- he called the daughter of his former vice president "an angel" -- but he also knew that his grandfather thought marriage should wait until David was older. After all, Ike had married Mamie at the seasoned age of nearly 26.

Moreover, Ike was more than "Granddad." He was General Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, two-term president of the United States -- principled, disciplined, often stern.

For two days, David procrastinated. On the day he was to return to college, Ike summoned him to his bedroom. They made perfunctory small talk but mostly sat in uneasy silence. "I choked," David recalled during a recent interview. "I couldn't do it."

Back at Amherst, David received a letter from the general, acknowledging his grandson's engagement to Julie and registering his delight: "You are both the kind of people who will, throughout your lives, enrich America. A love, shared by two young and intelligent people, is one of heaven's greatest gifts to humanity." Ike concluded by declaring: "I'm not only proud that you are my grandson, but my friend as well -- to whom I give my deepest affection."

"A treasure," David Eisenhower calls the letter today.

Like the book itself, the letter, and the story behind it, "rounds out the picture of a great man whose like we would not see again," as David writes.

Indeed, the chief problem with Dwight Eisenhower is that his image was indistinct while he was alive, David says, and in death he has become "marbleized," scrubbed of his humanity.

While Ike may have been formidable and undemonstrative, he could also be compassionate and tender. At news conferences, especially after his 1957 stroke, he may have seemed awkward, but, on paper, he expressed himself with eloquence.

Some books are written from the head; others, from the heart. "Going Home to Glory" (Simon & Schuster, $28), which David Eisenhower wrote with assistance from his wife is both, though it tilts toward the latter.

"I grow up, and he grows old," David says, summarizing the narrative.

"This is a book about a grandfather and a grandson. Politics happens, because Granddad was in politics and surrounded by politics, but the real subject is my grandfather. It's a character study."

The title, "Going Home to Glory," is a line from a hymn inscribed on the tombstone of Dwight Eisenhower's Aunt Lydia, who died at 17. The book chronicles the years from 1961, when Dwight Eisenhower moved from the White House to his beloved farm in Gettysburg, to 1969, when he died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after a series of heart attacks.

The book is divided into two parts: "General Eisenhower," which follows Ike's new life, restless retirement, and sometimes difficult transition from president to private citizen; and "Granddad," a more personal, affecting account of his decline and the approaching end when, like many powerful men, he becomes sweeter and more mellow. The man's man who wanted his pulp Westerns without women or "goo" and whose idea of affection was "a pinch and a kick" (in Mamie's words) is finally able to say directly to his grandchildren, and especially David, his only grandson, "I love you."

"I got to see him in that stage. Not many people did," David says, "and I think that's one of the things about this book that's distinctive, the new information about a historical figure. No one has told this story before."

David, now 62, knew his grandfather from frequent visits to the White House. The summer after he turned 10, he began working on the 190-acre Gettysburg farm, weeding the vegetable garden and painting fences, for 30 cents an hour. After his parents moved to a house on the corner of the farm, his contact with his grandfather became more regular, his relationship more intimate.

He sees him unguarded and offstage and becomes aware of his flaws and foibles (his fierce temper, his errant driving, his habit of driving Mamie crazy by constantly changing channels with the remote).

"Going home to glory means just that," David says. "What made Eisenhower great is the character I saw, the beauty of that character. When all the temporal things, all the trappings of power are gone, and he faces the essential things in life.

"He just had a proper sense of priorities and a balanced sense of what life is, a sense of what's important -- the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, being an instrument of peace, a light in the darkness, serving others. His wisdom, consideration and courage made an enormous impression on me."