Timothy M. Gay, Senior Strategist, LEVICK
Officers trained at West Point and Annapolis in the early decades of the 20th century were no more gifted or devoted than the cadets and midshipmen that came before or after. Yet many of them – Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Patton; Admirals Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, and Raymond Spruance, to name a few – are among the most revered figures in American history.
Why? Because when Duty (and Providence) called, they answered. It fell to their generation of military commanders to lead American soldiers and sailors in the epic struggle to save the world from fascism.
Lord knows Eisenhower and his World War II brethren committed their share of mistakes. Each had foibles that made them exceedingly human. But it’s hard to argue with what they wrought: a decisive victory over enemies on two fronts and a postwar Pax Americana that made the U.S. a superpower.
Fate’s stars now appear to have fallen on another mortal American soul to rescue our democracy and fight off fascist forces that, this time, are coming from within, as strange and terrifying as that is to contemplate. Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., has had an accomplished – if uneven – career as a bipartisan legislator, punctuated by eight years as a capable #2 to President Barack Obama. But people can be forgiven for wondering if Biden is equipped to handle the staggering clean-up-on-every-aisle challenge that awaits the successor to Donald Trump.
Much the same could have been said of Eisenhower at the outset of WWII. Ike’s rise in the peacetime Army had been, like his performance at the Point, steady but not spectacular. It took him a quarter-century of serving at obscure outposts to earn a brigadier general’s star. As America entered WWII, he had never directed anything larger than a battalion; he was far from the top of anyone’s list as a potential Allied supreme commander.
But in the pandemonium following Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and Nazi Germany’s declaration of war against the U.S., Eisenhower distinguished himself as a trusted aide to Army Chief of Staff George Marshall. Once the U.S. began dispatching troops overseas, Marshall sent Eisenhower to the Mediterranean and European Theaters to assume overall command.
Marshall observed in Eisenhower qualities that were desperately needed in war-torn London: patience, perseverance, affability, and an electric smile that could light up a room, ease tensions, and win over reluctant partners. Ike was ideally suited to manage the internecine politics of war-making by committee.
Barack Obama saw many of those same attributes in Joe Biden when he named him his running mate in the summer of 2008. Biden, too, has stick-to-it-iveness, a self-effacing chuckle, a natural charisma that works best in a small setting, and an infectious grin.
Amid a global conflagration, Eisenhower had to navigate disputes among such prickly adversaries-disguised-as-allies as France’s Charles de Gaulle and Britain’s Bernard Montgomery. In his 44 years (!) as Senator and Vice President, Biden mediated hundreds – maybe thousands – of negotiations between crusty committee chairmen and overweening Members, between right-wing and left-wing zealots, and between labor and management representatives who could barely exchange a civil word. Think of the scores of times Biden has championed U.S. interests in international parleys, some of them divisive, others sticky and convoluted.
Being in the thick of deliberations day after day demands the patience of Job and a capacity to appreciate the other side of an argument, traits that will serve Biden well in the national reconciliation that must occur over the next few years.
The physical resemblance between Eisenhower and Biden is striking. Even Biden’s tendency to jumble his words is reminiscent of Ike’s tongue-tied ramblings. But Eisenhower had no trouble making himself understood when it counted. “Pessimism never won any battle,” he once declared. Biden should turn Ike’s mantra into a sign on the Resolute Desk.
But the most endearing characteristic that Biden shares with Ike is grace, the resilience to confront pain and grief and somehow find a way to keep going. Both men tragically buried small children: Eisenhower’s three-year-old son died of scarlet fever; Biden’s infant daughter was killed in a nightmarish car crash, along with her mother.
The next time you see the famous photograph of Eisenhower at twilight on D-Day’s eve visiting the men of the 101st Airborne, their faces already greased for combat, remember that invasion planners believed that the casualty rate for Allied paratroopers could run as high as 75 percent. It turned out to be considerably less, thank heavens, but think how heavy the Supreme Commander’s heart must have been as he bantered with them about baseball and fishing, knowing that many would not survive the dawn.
It takes guts to be walloped by heartache and keep smiling while devoting your life to community and country. It’s why Eisenhower as president became paterfamilias, the father of our noisy and disjointed American family. Biden has Ike’s avuncular quality, the same twinkle in the eye, the same veneration for our men and women in uniform.
One of the inscriptions highlighted at the long-delayed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington pays homage to remarks Ike once made to wounded war veterans: “Each one of you bears upon his body the permanent, honorable scars of dangerous service: service rendered in order that our great nation might continue to live according to the expressed will of its own citizens.”
We all bear the scars of Trump’s ineptitude and corruption. The biggest threat to America’s noble experiment with democracy – that transcendent cause for which 400,000 Americans gave their lives in WWII – now comes from domestic, not foreign, sources.
Fate has fallen once more on an American leader with a gentle heart and an irrepressible smile. If President Biden’s leadership turns out to be half as inspired as General Eisenhower’s during WWII, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
And then salute.