Monday, July 15, 2013

Wordcraft -- Books and a life in review

Among the many joys of books are reading them and talking about them. Both, however, require some mental effort. And despite recent rain, the dog days of summer are not the easiest time to exert mental effort. Fortunately, for days when it’s too hot to do anything book related, there’s the wonderful Texas tradition of listening to other people review books they’ve read. It’s a tradition especially wonderful when the reviewers are both knowledgeable and entertaining.

I’m referring especially to The Rejebian Summer Series, sponsored on Wednesdays in June and July by Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. Last week I attended the series for the first time, to hear University of Texas at Dallas professor Clay Reynolds discuss two recent books about President Eisenhower, Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower: In War and Peace, and Evan Thomas’s Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.

That’s Dwight D. Eisenhower, the seldom mentioned Republican president of “I Like Ike” fame. A man with the kind of slogan that would be sneered at nowadays, with no blame, no finger pointing, not even an obvious political agenda.

Who was this man? “A shape shifter” who deliberately chose to appear older than his age, deliberately chose to appear befuddled, Reynolds said, to deflect attention from his agendas.

Without having ever belonged to a political party, Eisenhower won the presidency as a Republican, then killed the hundreds of bills initiated by fellow Republicans to dismantle the New Deal programs of his Democratic predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. Without ever having fired a rifle in combat, Eisenhower became one of America’s greatest war heroes but “not one (uniformed) American died in combat during the eight years he was president,” Reynolds said.

Ike’s accomplishments included the interstate highway system (after realizing the military implications of Germany’s autobahn), presiding over the racial integration of schools, and enforcing pre-existing laws about integration of the U.S. military, despite his personal disagreement with such laws.

His failures included his inability to establish a public health care system and obtain the d├ętente with the Soviet Union he desperately wanted.

And in Eisenhower’s personal life, he failed to secure a future with the woman he was willing to divorce his wife for, his wartime driver Kay Summersby. In a bizarre twist, Eisenhower refused a request from Harry Truman to run for president as a Democrat -- but not because he hated Democrats. Instead, Reynolds said, his falling out with Truman occurred at least partly because he believed Truman had a copy of a letter sent to Eisenhower by George C. Marshall. The letter from Marshall, the man who had mentored Eisenhower, threatened him with court martial if he divorced his wife to marry Summersby. (The revelation that Eisenhower was ready to destroy his long-term marriage was a revelation that drew some “say it ain’t so” gasps and questions from Reynolds’ audience.)

Eisenhower was also “an inveterate gambler who had to quit playing poker because he was winning all the money of his subordinates.” He turned instead to bridge.
But his biggest bluff wasn’t with cards. The big bluff, the one that inspired the title of one of his biographies, was that of the ultimate weapon he wielded: “If you have the power to destroy the world, you have to know if you’d do it,” Reynolds said. But it’s a decision that can never be shared. Not even with those closest and dearest.
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If not for a continuing schedule conflict, I’d have written sooner about the Rejebian Summer Series, inspired by the book clubs of Armenian-American reviewer (and longtime Dallas resident) Ermance Rejebian. The series continues through July 31. It’s free, with free parking at the church and in the parking garage of the neighboring Meadows Museum. For information, see
www.hpumc.org/rejebian/.

The books Reynolds mentioned are available in the Dallas Public Library system. For more about Reynolds and his work, see www.clayreynolds.info/.

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