Staff Q&A with David Eisenhower

David Eisenhower, director of Institute for Public Service  Photo credit: Peter Tobia

Camp David, formally known as the Naval Support Facility, Thurmont, is the country retreat for the President of the United States, located in Frederick County, Md.

President Franklin Roosevelt established the residence as USS Shangri La; President Eisenhower later renamed the getaway after his grandson, Dwight “David” Eisenhower II.
The Eisenhower name reigns in the grand hall of American presidential history with the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and both Roosevelts. But his descendants have largely avoided the political spotlight. His youngest son John followed his father into the military before serving as U.S. ambassador to Belgium. He is now a historian.

David Eisenhower, the former president’s grandson, says he was raised in the atmosphere of the subject that he is now teaching at Annenberg: history. Eisenhower is the director of the Annenberg School for Communication’s Institute for Public Service (IPS).

“Strangely, I was raised in an apolitical family,” he says. “I’m a historian. That’s what I was raised in. I was raised in Roman history; I was raised in Civil War history. That’s where our family’s from.”

He didn’t develop an interest in politics until he met his wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, in 1966, as her father, former President Richard M. Nixon, was gearing up for the 1968 presidential campaign.

“People assume that I grew up in some kind of political family and going into politics would be like Hank Steinbrenner moving into management of the New York Yankees after George Steinbrenner passed,” he says. “It’s just not the case.”

The Current visited the Annenberg Public Policy Center to talk with Eisenhower about his famous grandfather, public service in America, a story about a young Roger Ailes (now Fox News president) and the last time he visited Camp David.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about the Institute for Public Service?
A.
All of this was organized and put together as a way of completing the communications major. Communications and public service [ComPS] means that majors in this concentration take a lot of applied research offerings. They’ll generally do an internship or two in Washington [D.C.]; every four years we run an election year seminar in which we go to conventions. There are about five or six special offerings in addition to required communications courses that comprise the concentration. ... In other words, the communications major is 11 to 13 courses, and this is a way of choosing among the many courses and it leads towards a requirement, which is the Capstone thesis. In the final analysis, I would say IPS is a thesis program and it usually sends people in two directions: One is to government in Washington; the other is to law school, and they are not mutually exclusive. A lot of our majors over the last several years have wound up in political consulting or working in departments of government or going on to law school.

Q. Where are some of the alums who have come through the program?
A.
I wouldn’t know where to start. Catherine Chomiak is now working at MSNBC. She was an MSNBC intern in our program and she caught on and she was picked up by MSNBC. She’s working right next to Chris Matthews. Chelsea Hess, who’s now at NYU Law School, is a reporter for Fox News. That is something that developed through internships in our program. Rachel Thomas, who’s writing a thesis under my supervision right now, had an internship at the Social Office of the White House last spring. She has been doing professional advance for the president. She is writing an analysis comparing the healthcare controversy of today with the healthcare controversy of 1965—the passage of Medicare—that is based almost entirely on access and experiences that she has had in the Executive Office of the President. Rachael Dean is deputy press secretary for Senator McCain. I am proud of every graduate who has come through this program.

Q. Do you think public service should be a requirement for all Americans?
A.
I’m of two minds about that. I went through my young adulthood facing a military obligation. There is a difference in the way military questions are perceived, the way they are debated, in a nation where military service is a matter of course. There are a lot of people who are highly motivated in the area of public service, whether this is in media or whether it is teaching in West Philadelphia. They feel that they need to contribute. In fact, the third most popular single activity for ComPS graduates is Teach for America. There is this instinct, there is a desire to do it, and I don’t know how you would compel that. The only practicable public service requirement that I’ve ever been aware of is a military draft and ... well, I have mixed feelings about it because the Vietnam War was untenable because of the military draft. The military draft really complicated the Vietnam War. I would say our military is as, or perhaps more, efficient because they’re not dealing with a conscript force. By the same token, I think something has gone out of American life. Something ... a connection ... the maturing experience. And above all, the uniform is the ultimate symbol of membership in a nation. It’s a sense that the nation’s affairs are our personal interest; that it belongs to us. I think an element of that has gone out of the national life.

Q. I understand that you crossed paths with Fox News President Roger Ailes in your younger days.
A.
I can remember Roger hobbling around on crutches after a skiing accident. He was in his late 20s. He was one of these wonks in the TV industry and an absolute production genius. He’d run a daytime television show Mike Douglas filmed here in Philadelphia and they took him on as the media consultant in the 1968 Republican campaign. He’s a brilliant guy and a good man. One of the most meaningful exchanges I’ve ever heard or read about is one between him and Nixon. Nixon is being made up and recalling the debate that he had with Kennedy when he wasn’t wearing enough makeup and talking about how phony and how false all of this is, and Roger Ailes, 27 years old, says to him, ‘Mr. Vice President, television communications is not phony and communication with the voters is not false.’ He’s right. There are different rules, and Ailes is a guy who’s written those rules.

Q. The Eisenhower name is respected in American politics. Why do you think the former president is rarely criticized?
A.
One reason why Dwight Eisenhower is favorably regarded is that he was essentially nonpartisan in outlook. I won’t say apolitical. His real identity, his legacy, is grounded in World War II and the war in Europe and the aftermath. His presidency was about winning the peace after World War II. He was a conservative man; he was a Republican and a very important and underrated figure in Republican politics, but he’s not really regarded as a partisan figure. All that came later.

Q. Is there a certain aspect of your grandfather that you are the most proud of, such as helping to save the world during World War II or the integration of Little Rock High School?
A.
I’m very proud of the latter. It’s something that he got right. And it demonstrated the qualities that accounted for his great leadership in the European theater, which are essential justice and fairness. That was tested in Little Rock and he came up with the right answer. It’s not an event that changed the world, but it’s an event that set up changes, in a lot of ways, by demonstrating a coercive tool that future presidents would need in the desegregation struggle.

Q. In President Eisenhower’s farewell address, he famously said that in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the ‘military-industrial complex.’ What do you think he would say about the influence of this complex today?
A.
We were talking a little bit earlier about citizenship and volunteerism and public service, and there’s been one big change since 1960, and that is the military domain in our nation is more separate than it was then. It is genuinely complex today.
The military-industrial complex today is smaller in relative terms than it was. If you go back and look at TIME Magazine from 1960, ’61, ’62, look at all the ads. Everything is a rocket, everything is a tank, everybody’s in uniform. We were a militarized society then and he was drawing attention to that. But there’s a more fundamental point that he was aware of, which I think is still very much with us, and that is the idea that advocacy groups, institutions, teams of policy and communications experts can combine to preempt democratic decision-making. ... I would say that if we’re facing a complex today, it’s really a financial complex. The financial entities in this country are interlocking. They are enormous and they control huge percentages of our economy, far greater than the military-industrial complex. Far greater.

Q. When was the last time you were at Camp David?
A.
I remember it well. I want to say 10 days before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, I went up there; it wasn’t far from where we lived, maybe a 90-minute trip. I don’t remember whether I was going up there to pick things up or just to spend an afternoon. The Nixons were there and we had a quiet lunch and I think I watched a game on television, and then we just packed up and left. And I’ve never been back. I’ve been invited back plenty of times. I saw it first in 1963 when the camp was really rustic. The heating systems didn’t work really well and the swimming pools were all outdoors and the water was cold and it was a real hideaway. By ’74, it had turned into a real residence for the president and a place where the president could spend two or three days a week, maybe even four ...
We had good times there and I have appreciated the invitation to go back. I have actually driven back quietly once or twice to remind myself how to find it because the policy over the last 30 years has been to conceal the camp. They’ve taken all the signs down and it’s harder to find than it was. You have to remember the roads. The next time I expect to see Camp David is when it’s renamed. If I’m still alive when it’s renamed, I will happily officiate the ceremony, if desired.

Q. Why so?
A.
I just think there are chapters in your life and I think they’ve closed. I’m happy that we had that chapter. I admit, when I hear, ‘Camp David,’ I draw an association ... but that was a different era, and times have changed. I’m sure that the ambiance of the camp is different, as the ambiance of the White House is different. The White House I knew, the Camp David I knew, don’t exist.

Originally published on February 3, 2011