Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Author Interview: Evan Thomas discusses his Eisenhower biography, 'Ike's Bluff'

Evan Thomas
Speaking at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville last March 22, veteran journalist Evan Thomas said of President Barack Obama, “he can seem a little cocky, and a little peevish at times, a little put-upon, like he's doing us a favor being president.”

Thomas was drawing a distinction between Obama and Dwight Eisenhower, the subject of Thomas's most recent book, Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, which was released in paperback in September.

In an interview after his presentation, Thomas -- who also wrote biographies of John Paul Jones and Robert F. Kennedy -- explained his remarks to me.

Obama, he said, is “part of his culture,” because “cockiness and a sort of in-your-face trash talking is really part of our culture, so Obama's not distinctive in that way.”

By contrast, he continued, “Eisenhower came from an earlier time and he cared more about modesty and not showing off.” He understood that “people who are arrogant are really pretty insecure” and he was also “incredibly patient.”

Eisenhower was able to get a lot done, Thomas explained, because he was “able to sublimate and swallow his own ego.”

That said, Thomas noted, “Eisenhower had a huge ego but he worked harder at concealing it. He said he got ahead by concealing his intelligence and ambition.”

The two presidents differed in their engagement with the news media, as well.

“Eisenhower was good at keeping secrets. He liked to take the long view” Thomas said, but added that “he was pretty available to the press. He met the press a lot more than Obama does. He had press conferences every two weeks.”

Journalists in the 1950s “were pretty cozy with power in those days. They're a little more standoffish today but they also get less access,” he explained.

Today's “White House is pretty walled-off now,” Thomas said. “It's pretty hard to get access” from members of the Obama administration.

Thomas also drew a distinction between Eisenhower and another president, Teddy Roosevelt, who is admired by President Obama and also is the subject of one of Thomas's books.

Roosevelt, he said, “was an amateur who wanted to be a warrior.”

He quit his job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to join the Rough Riders. “He had to be shot at. He was very explicit about it. He wasn't pretending otherwise,” said Thomas.

By contrast, Eisenhower was “a grand strategist” who had “seen the ugliness of war, who'd had to send thousands of men to their deaths and bomb cities and he was just damned if he was going to get the United States into a war.”

That quality was what sparked Thomas's interest in writing Ike's Bluff in the first place.

“I was intrigued about Eisenhower as the great warrior who wanted to stay out of war,” he explained. Eisenhower helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II “and then as president was determined to keep the United States out of war, and that interested me.”

(Video of Evan Thomas' remarks at the Virginia Festival of the Book is available here and here; an audio recording of our interview is available as a podcast through Bearing Drift.  An earlier version of this article appeared on Examiner.com.)

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