Book Review: Three Days in January
Three Days in January:
Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission
by Bret Baier (with Catherine Whitney)
William Morrow, 2017
Bret Baier, the chief political anchor for Fox News (with the assistance of author Catherine Whitney) has written a new book that arrives at a precisely opportune moment in history. The book is Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission, an engaging and personality-driven account of the final days of the Eisenhower administration and its handing of power to the incoming leadership of John Kennedy, arrives in bookstores mere days before the particular ceremony it describes is being repeated in Washington, DC, as one presidential administration gives way to another. As Baier stresses throughout, the incumbent found his successor an almost impenetrable – and viscerally off-putting – enigma. “In most respects, Kennedy, a son of privilege following a dynastic pathway, was unknowable to Ike,” he writes. “He was as different from Eisenhower as he could be, as well as from Truman, who didn’t much care for him.” In a passage of the book’s somewhat clumsy prose (perhaps not entirely attributable to Whitney), the awkwardness and tension of the transition is underscored:
Ike believed the peaceful handover of power was a signature achievement of democracy – no matter the size of the victory, which in Kennedy’s case was fewer than 120,000 votes. At the same time, the process was fraught with an opportunity for mischief. You had a sitting president, a lame duck with all the authority of the office, and a president-elect with an outstanding pulpit but no authority.
The book – richly sourced and quite readable – hinges on a key moment: a meeting on December 6, 1960 between Eisenhower and the much-younger Kennedy, who’d just come through the grueling 1960 presidential campaign and was about to take power. Kennedy’s transition team was largely disdainful of Eisenhower, and the candidate himself was privately dismissive of the president he saw as avuncular and ineffective. Parts of the Kennedy campaign had likewise infuriated Eisenhower, so the personal stakes on both sides of that December meeting were high, and Baier draws a convincing picture of two men with powerful but very different kinds of charisma, quickly and unexpectedly coming to like each other a bit:
Watching Kennedy closely, Ike was surprised to find himself impressed by the man. This was not the glib politician from campaign, but rather here was a more thoughtful person – earnest in his desire to learn the business of the office and do it well. Before, Ike had been frankly perplexed that the American people had chosen such a callow fellow over the skilled and experienced Nixon. Now he realized that perhaps the people had seen this inner quality in Kennedy – that somehow it had shone through on the trail. Their conversation was so lively and engaging that time passed well beyond the allotted hour.
That account is drawn from the notes and recollections of the meeting that Eisenhower later dictated for the public record, and from a public joint statement he made with JFK soon after the meeting; in other words, it shouldn’t be believed except as a species of political fantasy each man for his own reasons thought might be useful. Eisenhower was intensely anxious to avoid even tacitly creating an environment in which he could be openly disrespected, and Kennedy was canny enough to avoid making a popular enemy if a smile and a firm handshake could prevent it. Neither man changed his opinion of the other, Kennedy looking on Eisenhower as a dinosaur mired in inertia and Eisenhower considering Kennedy a corrupt and shallow fear-monger.
Baird’s book, for all its careful research, is clearly intended in large part to echo that political fantasy – no doubt a smart move in a book written during the heat of the calamitous 2016 US presidential campaign. The extent to which parallels can be drawn between a five-star general president handing power to a war hero former senator and a Nobel laureate president handing power to a racist, sexist real estate liar with no political experience will be for each of Baier’s readers to determine on their own. One element of the book, however, will strike every reader: the more Baier learned about Eisenhower’s presidency, the more he came to admire it.