2.25.2006

Kempton

My dad turned 70, so I had gotten out my copy of Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events so that I could send him a Xerox of St. Murray's 70th-birthday column, which I remember reading in New York Newsday. But before I put it up, I thought I would quote an extended excerpt from one of my favorite essays of Kempton's, "The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower":

Dwight Eisenhower was as indifferent as Calvin Coolidge, as absolute as Abraham Lincoln, more contained than John Kennedy, more serpentine than Lyndon Johnson, as hard to work for as Andrew Johnson. Historians seem to accept most of these qualities as necessary for greatness: certainly none of them diminish it. But, then, most are accounted sinister by the great mass of civilians, and to confuse civilians and to keep them off his back is the soldier's art....

The Eisenhower who emerges here
[in his memoirs] intermittently free from his habitual veils is the President most superblyy equipped for truly consequential decision we may have ever had, a mind neither rash nor hesitant, free of the slightest concern for how things might look, indifferent to any sentiment, as calm when he was demonstrating the wisdom of leaving a bad situation alone as when he was moving to meet it on those occasions when he absolutely had to....

The precepts are plain to see:
1. Always pretend to be stupid; then when you have to show yourself smart, the display has the addtional effect of surprise.
2. Taking the blame is a function of servants. When the orange is squeezed, throw it away.
3. When a situation is hopeless, never listen to counsels of hope. Fold the enterprise.
4. Do nothing unless you know exactly what you will do if it turns out to have been the wrong thing. Walk not one inch forward onto ground which has not been painfully tested by someone else.
5. Never forget the conversation you had with Zhukov about how the Russian army clears minefields. "We march through them," Zhukov had said. It is a useful instruction if applied with the proper economy. Keep Nixon and Dulles around for marching through mine fields.
6. Always give an enemy an exit.
7. Never give an ally his head.
8. Assume that your enemies are just as sensible as you are. ("Personally I had always discounted the probability of the Soviets doing anything as 'reaction.' Communists do little on impulse; rather their aggressive moves are invariably the result of deliberate decision.")
9. Lie whenever it seems useful, but stop lying the moment 99 percent of the audience ceases to believe you.
10. Respond onlyy when there is some gain besides honor in meeting the challenge or some serious loss from disregarding it. For example, when Eisenhower was the first candidate for President in memory who indicated that he was unable to pronounce the word "injunction" when discussing the labor problem, I suggested to one of his admirers that he seemed extraordinarily dumb.

"If he's so dumb," was the reply, "why is he such a good bridge player?"

Like all defenses of Dwight Eisenhower it seemed sillly at first; but, with thought one understood its force. Eisenhower spent the twenties as an officer in garrison; his friends were civilians in towns like Leavenworth, Kansas. He learned to play bridge well because his pay did not cover losing money to civilians. He is equipped to respond to any challenge which seems to him sensible.


I think of those precepts a lot, these days. Kempton I miss even more. Here is the concluding graf from the birthday column I sent to my dad:

There are, in truth, kicks everywhere, and I have had all these and never one at my own expense. Most of life's epiphanies arise from its accidents, and it is never so much fun as when it conscripts us as prisoners to the luck of the day. Colette says in "The Vagabond," the bible for all us migratory laborers, that "If Chance ever got Herself called God, I should have been a very good Catholic indeed." And so, too, should I.

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