There are Presidential Museums for every President that served over the past 100 years, usually located in or near the their “hometown”. Some of the more memorable presidents from the 18th and 19th Century also have museums dedicated to their lives and accomplishments. While some of these museums are located in or near major cities, there have also been a good number of presidents who came from small towns. Their museums can sometime be interesting places to stop while traveling.
The first time I ever visited a presidential museum, I was driving from Saint Louis to Chicago on Interstate 55, a drive that had become familiar and dull to me. It was a July day and temperatures were close to 100 degrees. I knew both me and my car needed a break in the middle of the afternoon. So, I visited the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, a museum I would certainly recommend. I love stopping at places like this on a long drive, allowing the body to move around a bit, and stimulating the mind with some historical information. So, on my drive back to Denver from Kansas City, I decided to stop at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abeline, Kansas.
The museum is located in the EXACT SPOT that the former president grew up.
On the museum campus is Dwight Eisenhower’s boyhood home, and, with admission, visitors get a brief tour of the house.
The museum is only a few miles from Interstate 70. As president, one of Eisenhower’s signature accomplishments was the signing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. So, it seems fitting that this interstate highway system would find a way to serve the town Eisenhower grew up in. Arriving here without using the interstate would feel wrong in a way.
Every president, no matter the background, has two stories. A story about what they did before they became president, and the story about what they did as president. Before becoming president, Eisenhower was known primarily as the general that oversaw the Allies European Victory in World War 2.
In fact, Eishenhower’s military career, and exhibits regarding World War 2, appear to make up the largest part of this museum. Later in life, Eisehnhower himself considered his role in the military as the most significant one he had played. In his retirement, he preferred to be addressed as “General Eishenhower”, as opposed to “Mr. President” (which is how former presidents are usually addressed).
After helping start the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), he decided to run for President of the United States in 1952. The museum portrayed him, in a way, as a reluctant president. There is no way of knowing what truly is inside anybody’s heart. However, the way the story is portrayed is not of a man with a strong desire to become president, but of a man who spent his entire life fulfilling the various duties to which he was called. After being called to do so by countless associates, supporters, and both major political parties, leading the nation, as president, was just the final in a series of duties he was called to and performed over the course of his life.
The entire life story that is Dwight David Eisenhower felt like a story out of a completely different time in history. This idea seems almost like a long-dormant old folklore in American culture. The hero turned leader. A person who wins the adoration and respect of a large group of people based on some heroic acts and then goes on to lead decisively, yet not divisively. A person who sincerely tries to lead all the people, rather than just the ones that are supportive. And, a person who finds a way to be both transformative and a consensus builder with views that are strong without being extreme.
[I will leave the exact details of his presidency to the history books and the museum itself.]
This feels, in a way, like the exact opposite of what has been going on recently. When it comes to this idea of a military veteran/ war hero president, there are plenty of examples throughout history, but no clearer example than Eishenhower.
I do not want to make this another angry political blog (there are way too many as it is), but I do not consider our current president, nor his predecessor, to be a hero, at least not in a general sense like the heroes past. Sure, both men are heroes to a subset of our population. However, both men were also dismissive, and sometimes in a nasty way, to other groups of people within our country. Being the first president of mixed racial background, or the first non-politician president may be important steps for our country. But it’s hard to consider being a community organizer or a business tycoon “heroic” in the traditional sense.
There is a time and a place for everything. Maybe the middle of the 20th Century was the time and the place for the hero. It could be seen throughout the culture of that time; the Western Hero/Villain movies, characters like the Lone Ranger, and such. Our society has changed significantly since then. Movies this decade more commonly feature protagonists with some form of character flaw, and antagonists who draw some amount of sympathy based on their life experiences or perspectives.
As our culture progresses, we enter a period where maybe we should not look to a hero, but within ourselves. Most of the problems we face today are not as straight-forward as a General coming in and defeating Nazis. They’re more complex, like structural racism which results from the cumulative effect of people’s individual attitudes and pre-conceptions, the negative emotional and communal effects selfishness and the accessibility of smart phones create, or the susceptibility of those that feel disenfranchised to messages promoting radical and sometimes violent behavior. They are not solved by a leader, an army, or a bunch of laws. They are solved by each person’s behavior, one by one, day in and day out.