The Witch is Dead: New Beginnings — Obama and Ike

If you look at it on a road atlas, America today resembles a star in the center of the world, with its center in Indiana. It is because of the patterns of the roads and it only got like that at the end of the big war. Eisenhower built the roads so that Jack Kerouac could travel without interruption from New York to Denver and all the way to Los Angeles and up to San Francisco. And there he found things we, as Americans, had never seriously considered before: Taoist monks like Gia-fu Feng in California and jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie among the smoky denizens of the night on the road.

Gilbert Millstein, who reviewed Kerouac’s On the Road at The New York Times, said: "Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the 'Lost Generation,' so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the 'Beat Generation.' "

This was Kerouac’s America, but it was Eisenhower’s as well because Eisenhower built the roads for him. It was an awakening moment and they awakened it together, because prior to it, when Americans looked out, and if they ever looked up at all, they almost always looked backward in time to Europe, as Hemingway did. But today we can stand in Indiana or Chicago and look in all directions; East, West, South and the Great White North. From that we have become a different people; a new people.

I bring it up now because more than once this week, in expanding the Obama comparison to Jack Kennedy, pundits have grabbed onto the image of Kennedy not wearing a coat and Dwight Eisenhower, at 70, wearing an overcoat, a scarf and a hat at Kennedy’s Inaugural speech. This image is meant to suggest the change in generations. But before they glom onto it at journalism school and send it forth in multiple copies like Nixon suggesting the “dark side” because he needed a shave when he debated with Kennedy, it should be looked at. Because I could well see Obama as Eisenhower’s natural successor instead of Nixon’s or Kennedy’s.

Much will be said this week about the president’s African roots and traditions, but Obama was reared by a fair-minded grandmother who raised him in the original spirit of the American heartland. And when he flashes that great smile, you can almost see Kansas — it is the direct inheritance of an ancestor, carried direct from the face and smile of Stanley Armour Dunham, Obama’s grandfather — the one who was thrown out of high school in El Dorado, Kansas, for punching out the school principal.

Of any president since post-war, the people who nurtured Obama in the formative early days and brought him up come closest to Eisenhower’s kith and kin. While Obama’s Kansas-born mother was, as he said, “the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known,” and his grandmother buried in a Unitarian church in Hawaii, Eisenhower’s mother was a strong pacifist in the Mennonite tradition. Like Obama’s maternal line, Eisenhower hailed from Kansas; Surrender Dorothy land, where the cowardly lion, the heartless tin man and brainless straw man were cured of their neuroses and afflictions by the rising, natural spirit of the earth represented by Dorothy, child of God, child of nature.

Obama also conjures Eisenhower in his approach to solving problems. They both have their own clear personal ideas about things, but neither brings ideology to their tasks and both defuse and deflate the warring egos of the entrenched ideologists who have brought turmoil to the day. They are both drafted into higher service much without seeking it, and both are expected to solve a mess of problems — a world of problems — created by others who came just recently before them.

The Obama Inauguration is indeed a day of change. It is a change that first began at Yalta but hasn’t yet taken hold. If we look at change in our world from the American perspective, we can see the world of Victoria ending pretty much at Yalta. The pivotal transition came in 1956 when Britain’s Anthony Eden attempted to stop Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, from nationalizing the Suez Canal. When President Eisenhower forbade it, Eden famously responded, “Over to you, Ike.” This incident can be seen as the end of British dominance in the world; in came the Anglo-American alliance.

The rise of Ronald Reagan sought to restore the grandeur of the old alliance without the actual necessity of it. This was in direct opposition to Eisenhower’s order to Anthony Eden and to the spirit of the Eisenhower era — not only the spirit of Kerouac and Bill Evans, but of Dag Hammarskjold, spirit father of the United Nations; Hannah Arendt, philosopher and author of The Banality of Evil; and Telford Taylor, the American prosecutor at Nuremberg. But the assault on the Falklands was a long way from Nelson at Trafalgar. And as Jimmy Carter said later, “I never had any doubt that we could take Granada.”

What Reagan brought was a feeling of the reconstruction of the World War II period — a re-enactment, possibly, like those Confederate mock war events in the hills and hollows of Virginia — and George W. Bush was the unfortunate bookend of this experience. Bush was the son who had no experience of his own generation. He was chosen by his father’s generation to continue the old order and he willingly marched into the task.

In his first month in office, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “He [Bush] said he never liked the Beatles after they got into that ‘kind of a weird psychedelic period.’ ” And 10 weeks into his presidency she reported going hungry for a shred of modernity. “Bush II has reeled backward so fast, economically, environmentally, globally, culturally, it’s redolent of Dorothy clicking her way from the shimmering spires of Oz to a depressed black-and-white Kansas ... What’s next, Asbestos, DDT, bomb shelters, filterless cigarettes? Patti Page?”

America under Bush has resembled Spain under Generalissimo Franco. That which Eisenhower ended had not really passed. That which Eisenhower started had not really begun. Time had stalled, and the old world, even with eerie overtones of 14th-century Crusades, had managed to sustain and reinstall itself.

Yesterday it ended. And that is the cause of the massive celebrations in Washington and as far away as Kenya.

The world can awaken again.

Ding dong, the witch is dead.




Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.