Abilene — Dwight Eisenhower’s image seemed secure when he left office 50 years ago after two terms as president. He was America’s bald-headed, do-nothing, genial golfing grandpa who happened to be in charge during eight years of peace and prosperity.
Ike, the last U.S. president to be born in the 19th century, was replaced by John F. Kennedy, who brought Camelot and a full head of hair with him. The ’50s became the ’60s, and Eisenhower was forgotten.
“It happened the day he left office,” said William Snyder, curator of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Ike’s hometown.
Still, Snyder wasn’t quite prepared for a recent encounter with a young father who thought Eisenhower must have been a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln’s.
“Something like only 15 percent of Americans who are alive today were alive when he was president,” said Tim Rives, deputy director. “He might as well be Franklin Pierce or Chester Arthur to some of them.”
To re-establish Ike’s relevance to new generations, museum officials have been renovating exhibits to highlight the accomplishments of the nation’s 34th president, who served from 1953 to 1961.
In June, it opened “Eisenhower: Agent of Change,” chronicling the indebtedness to Ike of anybody who drives the interstate highways, surfs the Internet, follows the space program or cares about civil rights.
More changes are planned. Snyder said the museum next April will open a Smithsonian traveling exhibit called “Elvis at 21.” It features photographs of Elvis Presley’s first professional recording session in New York City in 1956 when he was 21 years old. It also includes letters from fans begging Ike not to draft their idol into the Army.
More renovations are planned to highlight Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie, and Eisenhower’s years as commander of allied forces in World War II.
Snyder plans to design the war exhibit around the original table used in the planning of D-Day, which is currently displayed in the museum. His goal is to open the new exhibit in June 2014, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Increased programming and more frequent exhibits in recent years have helped double attendance at the museum to about 160,000 visitors a year, Rives and Snyder said.
Every year it draws people from all 50 states and several foreign countries. Kansas provides the most visitors, but California and New York are second and third, they said.
The museum and library, as well as Eisenhower’s boyhood home, are among five buildings spread over a 22-acre campus administered by National Archives.
It continues to get new items regularly, Snyder said. Last year it received newly discovered drafts of Eisenhower’s farewell address warning against the influence of the “military-industrial complex.”
The drafts, found in a boathouse at a cabin in Minnesota once owned by his speechwriter, Malcolm Moos, revealed that Eisenhower started preparing for the speech two years before he left office, and that the famous phrase was in it from the beginning, Rives said.
The televised version of the speech, donated to the museum by CBS, plays continuously in the new exhibit.
The address typified his presidency in many ways. Delivered on Jan. 17, 1961, it drew relatively little attention at the time. It was overshadowed only three days later by Kennedy’s inaugural address challenging a new generation to “ask not what your country can do for you ... ”
But Eisenhower’s speech has proven prophetic over the years and has received renewed attention. Snyder said scholars now rank it with George Washington’s as the nation’s two greatest farewell speeches.
Eisenhower’s presidency has grown in esteem, and he is now ranked among the nation’s top 10 presidents, Snyder said.
A presidency of firsts
Eisenhower signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act ensuring African-Americans’ voting rights, creating a division in the Justice Department to monitor civil rights abuses and setting up the first civil rights commission to investigate discrimination.
It was the first anti-discrimination legislation since the Civil War and set a precedent for the civil rights and voting rights acts of the 1960s.
He also sent troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce a Supreme Court decision admitting nine black students to the city’s all-white high school; integrated the military; used a combination of legal action and persuasion to integrate public facilities in Washington, D.C.; appointed the first African-American to an executive position in the White House; and appointed only pro-integration judges to the federal bench, Snyder said.
Eisenhower also created the interstate highway system. He remembered a disastrous 1919 cross-country convoy of military equipment he led that took 58 days because there was no adequate road system. He also had witnessed the rapid movement of German military equipment along that country’s autobahns during the war.
Eisenhower signed the legislation that created NASA, and established the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which led to the Internet.
The Cold War and the rise of covert intelligence operations occurred under Eisenhower. The exhibit includes the trowel Ike used to set the cornerstone of the CIA building, two early spy pistols, the first photo from space of a Soviet air base and artifacts from the U-2 spy plane incident that became a major embarrassment for his administration.
Ike, a soldier who hated war, said in his farewell speech that he regretted leaving office without a peaceful solution to the Cold War.
‘He’s the man’
Artifacts in the World War II exhibit include many weapons from the era and Ike’s staff car, a 1942 Cadillac.
“He’s probably the consummate military guy,” said Ken Wasoba, retired president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Southern Colorado, who visited the museum recently from Colorado Springs wearing a 101st Airborne infantry cap from his service in Vietnam. “You look at all the people who ever served, and Eisenhower’s it. He’s the man.”
Eisenhower died in 1969 and is buried with Mamie, who died 10 years later, and their first-born son, Doud, in the Place of Meditation on the grounds.
“It’s amazing everything he got accomplished,” said museum visitor Mitch Cooney of Pismo Beach, Calif. “I had no idea he did so much.”