Exclusive Excerpt: Ike's Bluff

Eisenhower golf shoes
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas
Ike's golf shoes were always at the ready.

Years later, John Eisenhower expressed a kind of bemused wonder at his father’s obsession. He recalled his father’s “glee” as he arrived for his frequent weekends and holidays at Augusta National. “He would change his shoes in the Cadillac,” on the way in from the airport, John recalled. Getting out of his limousine in his spikes, he would walk directly to the 10th tee by his house, “Mamie’s Cabin,” and play the back nine holes before coming up the front nine — and, if he was feeling energetic or frustrated by a mere eighteen holes, play nine more, hastening from shot to shot but nonetheless spending some five hours on the course.

Waiting for him, decked out in their loud golf shirts, would be several of his friends from the “gang.” The foursome might include Robert Woodruff, chairman of the board of Coca-Cola; Cliff Roberts, an investment banker who skillfully managed Ike’s money; and George Allen, who played the clown, though he was a brilliant corporate lawyer.

“He did not talk much,” said John. “Only one thing mattered.” There was usually some teasing in the president’s foursome, but it was “one sided,” John noted. “Dad teased George Allen for being fat. George was constantly making bets that he could lose weight.” (Eisenhower’s correspondence reflects that Allen rarely collected.) “Only Al Gruenther [an old army friend and Ike’s successor as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe] teased him back, and if he did, it was pretty damn calculated.” Other players knew not to try dirty jokes. “Dad was very Victorian. If he said ‘damn’ in the presence of a woman, he’d excuse himself. But there were no women on the golf course. He never played with one.” Ike’s cursing, while frequent, was not scatological.

John recalled, as a little boy on Sunday golf outings to the course at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington, watching his father curse “Hell!” and “Damnation!” as he habitually sliced his first drive into a nearby alfalfa patch. Eisenhower had unusually large, strong hands, and he had little difficulty stroking approach shots onto the green, though his stiff left leg — his old West Point football and riding injury — meant his shots tended to fade to the right. Putting was more problematic. Ike’s partners were generous about “gimmes,” letting him pick up balls a few feet from the hole. (The caddies sometimes bet on the president’s scores. On one hole, when an indulgent partner waved off Ike’s four-footer with a casual “That’s good for me,” one of the caddies blurted, “Not for me!”)

On Augusta’s gorgeous but challenging course, Ike was a “bogey golfer,” usually a stroke or two above par. Of course, he “expected perfection. A good shot was normal. Hitting in the rough would bring an expletive,” said John. Ike fretted over bad rounds and exulted over good ones. “You’re the most cheerful winner I ever saw,” a friend once told him. “If he sank a thirty-foot putt he would strut all over the place,” John recalled. “He’d stick his chest out and pump his elbows up and down. He was quite boyish about the whole thing.”

While he was president, Eisenhower did not have to wait for tee times or worry about groups playing ahead or behind. Secret Service men, carrying carbines in golf bags, roamed the woods to keep away the dangerous or merely curious. After Ike left the presidency he had to wait his turn, like all the rest. Playing at Eldorado Country Club near Palm Springs sometime in the early 1960s, the ex-president was signaled to play through by Jackie Cochran, the formidable woman who had helped persuade him to run for president in 1952 by bringing him the film of the "We Like Ike" rally. Cochran was playing in a women's foursome ahead of Ike and his pals. Before she allowed the men to jump ahead, Jackie said to Ike, "Watch this little girl." One of her partners, a young girl, lofted a perfect drive onto the par-3 green. This display of female prowess was apparently unnerving. "We sprayed our shots all over," recalled John. "God damn Jackie," grumbled Ike.

Ike could be patient. But only when he wanted to be.

From Chapter 22, "Sweet Words"
Some White House reporters, kept at a distance, began to realize that Ike’s cool manner was to some extent a facade, albeit a very impressive one. On his travels with the president, United Press’s Merriman Smith talked on occasion to Ike’s golf partners, particularly the pros at various clubs. One pro, Don January, swore to Smith that he would never set foot on a golf course with Eisenhower again because the president took outrageous “gimmes,” improved the lie of his ball when he felt like it, and took liberties when he added his score. “Here was old Mr. Courtly Manners and good sportsmanship — he was about the lousiest sport who ever lived, in golf. Incredible!” Smith exclaimed in a 1968 oral history.

The truth, of course, was that Eisenhower's house had many rooms, and that while he tried to keep his impetuous rage locked away in the attic, inevitably it burst forth in tantrums and other childish displays. Eisenhower could not afford to show his temper or his enormous ambition and ego in public, that was for weaker, lesser men like Khrushchev and Monty. He had to be the one to keep an even strain while others blustered and threatened. Ike's image of calm assurance was his political capital, at home and abroad. He may have felt, without much exaggeration or self-glorification, that world peace depended on it. After his heart attack in 1955, his ileitis episode in 1956, and his stroke in 1957, he had another incentive to stay calm: bottled.up anger could kill him. The catch, as he protested to his doctors more than once, was that his job, by its very nature, imposed a daily menu of vexation and stress.

So Eisenhower took out his frustrations and fears on the golf course and at the bridge table, or aimed his vitriol and impatience at the two people he could afford to abuse because they loved and cared for him unconditionally: his wife and his doctor.

Howard Snyder and Ike were doctor and patient, friends and rivals, sometimes all at once. Snyder was proud, even vain, and one can sense an undercurrent of resentment and jealousy toward the president in his otherwise straightforward medical diary. Dependent on Snyder, Ike was not above passive-aggressive baiting of his doctor punctuated by outbursts of anger. The tensions showed on the golf course. In September 1958, when Snyder tried to compliment Ike’s golf game as the two men played for some low-stakes wager, Ike suspected his doctor was trying to jinx him. “My God, two pars and a birdie on the first three holes!” Snyder exclaimed as they played the Newport Country Club course. “The President retorted, ‘Keep your God damn mouth shut, Howard,’” Snyder later wrote. He described the president seething on the next hole: “bad drive, double bogie --spoke to his caddie in a voice I could hear, ‘Too God damn bad you have people around who shoot off their mouths.’”

On April 11, 1959, when Ike was trying to escape the Berlin Crisis by golfing at Augusta, his inner tensions burst forth in spectacular fashion. Recalled Snyder:

The President’s golf was reasonably good on the first nine, but the worst I have ever seen on the second nine. The President was so mad that on the 17th green when he made a bad explosion shot out of the trap and I yelled “Fine shot!”, he got so mad he yelled, “Fine shot, hell, you son of a bitch,” and threw his wedge at me. The staff of the club wrapped itself around my shins and the heavy wedge missed me; otherwise, I would have had a fractured leg. He apologized perfunctorily and said, “Oh, pardon me.”

Excerpted from the book Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, by Evan Thomas. Copyright © 2012 by Evan Thomas. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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