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General Granddad
David Eisenhower’s new book focuses on the human side of the war hero and president known as Ike. It’s the story of a grandfather and his grandson

The Philadelphia Inquirer

December 2, 2010

By Art Carey

David Eisenhower’s new book, Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969, offers many poignant, illuminating stories. This one stands out:

It was Thanksgiving, 1967, and he and Julie, both all of 19, had just gotten engaged.

David Eisenhower knew that his grandfather was fond of Julie Nixon --he called the daughter of his former vice president “an angel” -- but he also knew that his grandfather thought marriage should wait until David was older and more “established.” After all, Ike had married Mamie at the ripe and seasoned age of nearly 26.

Moreover, Ike was more than “Granddad.” He was General Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, two-term president of the United States -- principled, disciplined, often stern and forbidding.

For two days, David procrastinated, trying to summon the courage to break the news. On the day David was to return to college, Ike called him to his bedroom. Grandfather and grandson made perfunctory small talk but mostly sat in uneasy silence. Thirty minutes passed.

“I choked,” David recalled during a recent interview at his home in Berwyn. “I couldn’t do it.”

Back at Amherst, David received a letter from the five-star general, acknowledging his grandson’s engagement to Julie and registering his delight: “You are both the kind of people who will, throughout your lives, enrich America. Moreover, a love, shared by two young and intelligent people, is one of heaven’s greatest gifts to humanity.”

Ike concluded by declaring: “I’m not only proud that you are my grandson, but my friend as well -- to whom I give my deepest affection.”

“A treasure,” David Eisenhower calls the letter today. “My greatest gift.”

Like the book itself, the letter, and the story behind it, “rounds out the picture of a great man whose like we would not see again,” as David writes.

Indeed, the chief problem with Dwight Eisenhower is that his image was indistinct while he was alive, David says, and in death he has become “marbleized,” a hero scrubbed of his humanity.

While Ike may have been formidable and undemonstrative, he could also be compassionate and tender. While he may have been famous for his winning grin and passion for golf, he was also deeply principled and thoughtful. At news conferences, especially after his 1957 stroke, he may have seemed awkward and tongue-tied, but, on paper, he expressed himself with eloquence and was capable of phrases of biblical majesty.

Some books are written from the head; others, from the heart. Going Home to Glory (Simon & Schuster, $28), which David Eisenhower composed with ample assistance from his wife, Julie, is both, though it tilts pleasingly toward the latter.

“I grow up, and he grows old,” David says, summarizing the narrative.

“This is a book about a grandfather and a grandson. Politics happens, because Granddad was in politics and surrounded by politics, but the real subject is my grandfather. It’s a character study.”

The title, Going Home to Glory, is a line from a hymn inscribed on the tombstone of Dwight Eisenhower’s Aunt Lydia, who died at 17. The book chronicles the years from 1961, when Dwight Eisenhower moved from the White House to his beloved farm in Gettysburg, to 1969, when he died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after a series of heart attacks.

The book is divided into two parts: “General Eisenhower,” which follows Ike's new life, restless retirement, and sometimes difficult transition from president to private citizen; and “Granddad,” a more personal, affecting account of his decline and the approaching end when, like many powerful men, he becomes sweeter and more mellow. The man’s man who wanted his pulp Westerns without women or “goo” and whose idea of affection was “a pinch and a kick” (in Mamie’s words) is finally able to say directly to his grandchildren, and especially David, his only grandson, “I love you.”

“I got to see him in that stage. Not many people did,” David says, “and I think that’s one of the things about this book that’s distinctive, the new information about a historical figure. No one has told this story before.”

David, now 62, knew his grandfather from frequent visits to the White House. The summer after he turned 10, he began working on the 190-acre Gettysburg farm, weeding the vegetable garden and painting fences, for 30 cents an hour. After his parents moved to a house on the corner of the farm, his contact with his grandfather became more regular, his relationship more intimate.

He sees him unguarded and offstage and becomes aware of his flaws and foibles (his fierce temper, his errant driving, his habit of driving Mamie crazy by constantly changing channels with the remote).

“Going home to glory means just that,” David says. “What made Eisenhower great is the character I saw, the beauty of that character. When all the temporal things, all the trappings of power are gone, and he faces the essential things in life.

“He just had a proper sense of priorities and a balanced sense of what life is, a sense of what’s important -- the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, being an instrument of peace, a light in the darkness, serving others. His wisdom, consideration, and courage made an enormous impression on me.”

Julie Nixon also grew up as Dwight Eisenhower grew old, also witnessed from a close and privileged vantage his evolution and the revelation of his character.

“Eisenhower was a big figure in my childhood, because my father was vice president and Eisenhower was the man who was sending my parents all over the world,” she says. “He was incredibly charismatic and he had these beautiful, brilliant blue eyes, these china-blue eyes, and he was so kind, and yet he was also this great leader who was in charge of the world.

“Then to be able to see him on a more personal level, when David and I started dating in 1966, and to see him at the end of his life, and the courage with which he faced death and the graceful way that he gave up power, all that was wonderful and inspiring.”

From an early age, David Eisenhower aspired to be a writer. His book Eisenhower at War, 1943-1945 was a best-seller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1987. These days he is director of the Institute for Public Service at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been honored for his teaching.

As he watched his grandfather in his later years, he realized he had the stuff of a compelling story. In 1976, after law school and service in the Navy (and a spell as a sportswriter covering the Phillies for the Evening Bulletin), he began gathering material and interviewing his grandfather’s friends and associates. While he and Julie were living in a bungalow in Capistrano Beach, Calif., he dictated the manuscript. Then, he put it aside to toil on the book about his grandfather’s war years. The manuscript gathered dust until the summer of 2009, when David and Julie, by now the parents of three adult children and grandparents of a little girl, decided the time had come to publish. Though they added a hundred pages of new material, much of the book is just as David narrated it more than 30 years ago. The couple’s son, Alex Eisenhower, 30, helped as a research assistant, and Julie, 62, an accomplished wordsmith herself (a former Saturday Evening Post editor and the author of Special People and Pat Nixon: The Untold Story), “finalized” the book. “She was the closer,” David says, “the Mariano Rivera.”

“What I’m most proud of is I think I capture a relationship accurately,” David says. “It’s something we didn’t change. I don’t think I’m melodramatic, I don’t think I overdo it. I don’t think I understate the emotional content of it. I think I got it right.”

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