The Eisenhower Insurgency

by I.A. Kummant 

 



Dwight D. Eisenhower has been my favorite president since I was five, maybe because he was my first president.  His picture hung on the wall of our Kindergarten classroom, near the flag.  He looked strong and friendly, resembling one of my grandfathers.  What I learned about Eisenhower later, about his boyhood in Abilene, his remarkable leadership in World War II, and his many courageous policy decisions as president, only deepened my respect. 
 
A few months ago I searched for a new biography of Eisenhower online, hoping for wisdom from a great man in these difficult times.  Instead, I stumbled upon a small book published in 2013 that tells a thrilling and unexpected story.  (http://citizensforeisenhower.com)
 
I knew that Eisenhower was elected in a landslide in 1952.  So, as a great war hero, Eisenhower was pretty much chosen by acclaim, was just a shoe-in, right?  That's what I used to think.  Actually, as detailed by Stanley M. Rumbough, Jr., in Citizens for Eisenhower, it took a tremendous grassroots movement, with more than a million volunteers, to get Ike nominated and elected.  The main opponent was not Adlai Stevenson, but rather "Mr. Republican," Senator Robert A. Taft, and the Republican Party establishment that overwhelmingly supported him.
 
Just a quick Cleveland sidebar: Ike campaigned in Cleveland in September 1952 and his advance team flew an illuminated "I Like Ike" barrage balloon over the city that was visible for thirteen miles.  Maybe you were there, or have photos of the event in a family album?
 
Stan Rumbough, co-founder of Citizens for Eisenhower, is an engaging storyteller and a fascinating character in his own right.  Now 95 years old, the longtime West Palm Beach resident is a serial entrepreneur who has done very well in business.  In this video interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMW-d3t676c), he recounts stories that are also in the book, as well as additional material.  One glimpse of his personality: his life plan, he explains, has always been "one third work, one third charity, and one third fun."  Fun, it turns out, also played a very large part in the Eisenhower campaign!
 
In 1951, Stan Rumbough and his partner Charles Willis were a couple of
young World War II veterans running their own fledgling air freight service.  Rumbough had been a Marine fighter pilot, Willis a Navy pilot of just about everything that flew, and between them they had five Distinguished Flying Crosses.  These young men were not easily discouraged, but found that the bureaucracy in Washington was creating one obstacle after another to their business success. 
 
So for the first time in their lives, they started thinking about politics.  They felt that the Democrats had been in power too long, and that a new broom was needed.  Republican frontrunner Robert Taft did not appeal to them because of his isolationism.  Eisenhower ought to run, they concluded, and decided to do something about it.  In his introduction, Rumbough summarizes what happened next:
 
Let me set my stage, so to speak.  Before there was any formal "Eisenhower for President" movement, it was just my partner Charlie Willis, me, our first volunteer (Dolly Hirshon), and a plan.  We would create so much public demand for Ike to run, that he would have to say "Yes."  We started building "Eisenhower Clubs" one state at a time, and within eight months, our organization included thousands of volunteers working out of our headquarters and more than 800 "Eisenhower Clubs" spread over 38 states.  By that point, I must acknowledge, we were no longer alone.  Myriad other Eisenhower fans and professional politicians were pursuing the same goal...and Ike said, "Yes."
 
Our mission, you might say, was over.  Well, no.  We set another goal: help Ike get the Republican nomination, and we mobilized our forces to sway voters in the states that held primary elections, to charm convention delegates in the others, and to overwhelm attendees at the Chicago nominating convention with hype and hoopla.  Ike won.
 
And then...the campaign.  By this time, "Citizens for Eisenhower" included more than a million volunteers from all political parties or none at all, who wanted to see Ike in the White House.  We held rallies for Ike, mobilized crowds for speeches, and participated in the development and sponsorship of the first-ever political spots on television.  And we worked a classic get-out-the-vote plan, from manning phone banks to remind, to taking people to the polls to vote.  Ike won.
 
Reading Eisenhower's speeches of the time it is striking how similar the issues were to today's.  Progressives had been in power too long and it showed in many ways.  People were concerned about the war in Korea dragging on, about a push for socialized medicine, and about corruption in the IRS and elsewhere in Washington.  (This 1954 Eisenhower speech in Cleveland summarizes those issues.  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=10116 ) However, Rumbough writes, the voters in 1951 and 1952 seemed much more interested in Ike himself than in particular policy questions.  They just liked and trusted him and believed that he belonged in the White House.
 
Again like today, some strategists advocated focus on a handful of swing counties in a handful of swing states.  Eisenhower, however, insisted on campaigning in as many states as possible, 45 in all, including the "solid Democrat" South, and was rewarded by winning Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee.  The volunteers were along helping every step of the way.
 
Citizens for Eisenhower is a reminder of the power of personal relationships.  Rumbough and Willis built their organization through people they knew all over the country, through their families, business, college, and the military.  The state heads in turn built local clubs through people they knew.  Headquarters provided a handbook and sold campaign items to the clubs, but the clubs did their own fundraising, planned their own activities, and handled their own legal affairs.  They even funded and placed most of the radio and television advertising of the campaign.
 
Ambassador Gilbert A. Robinson, publisher of the book, who was a young volunteer for Eisenhower in 1952, points out in an epilog that one strength of Citizens was the fact that it was not affiliated with the Republican Party and worked with everyone, Democrat, Republican, and independent voters.  He also points out that today social media followers are only a beginning: "The challenge is to convert those correspondents into active members of your club, your movement, your campaign.  A 'list of friends' does not translate into action."
 
And boy did they have a concept of action in 1952.  Rumbough calls it "hype and hoopla."  There were many aspects--enormous letter-writing campaigns, phone trees, thousands of Eisenhower volunteers at the nominating convention, rallies featuring popular performers, but most of all, parades.  After one Eisenhower appearance that drew a poor turnout, Citizens invented the concept of the "bandwagon."  Soon there were three bandwagons, entirely staffed by volunteers, criss-crossing the country to advance every Eisenhower speech with a local parade.  A bandwagon consisted of a large semi-trailer loaded with a loudspeaker-equipped jeep, all the equipment for flying and illuminating an "I Like Ike" barrage balloon, and "I Like Ike" dresses for a dozen local ladies to wear in the parade.  One advance specialist would line up local marching bands and, if possible, an elephant.  Rumbough sums it up, "If someone didn't know that Ike was coming to town, they must have been in a coma."
 
A parade was also the theme of the famous "Ike for President" television commercial created by Disney artists, working as volunteers after hours.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fCboQKkwQA) 
 
Could a similar volunteer effort work today?  Rumbough believes it is key that the effort be volunteer: "In my opinion, then and still today, it is impossible to have a truly volunteer organization if the leadership is being paid.  A certain feeling of resentment and greed takes hold, and the volunteers often feel that they are tools to be used, and not equal partners."
 
Ambassador Robinson believes strongly that an organization like Citizens for Eisenhower could be used again.  Rumbough and Willis "not only created an organization that helped recruit and elect President Eisenhower, but designed a model that could be used today by any Republican, Democrat...or Independent...candidate for President of the United States."