Ike and the Gang
His pals at Augusta National not only played golf and bridge with him, they managed his money and helped make him President
He was Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, which hammered the life out of Nazi Germany during World War II. He was the 34th President of the United States, and for the eight years of his Presidency he was the undisputed leader of what was known as the Free World. If you want to get a measure of the man, combine President Ronald Reagan with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf and multiply by 10 and you won't be far off the mark. His campaign slogan was "I like Ike," and for once there was no political hyperbole involved. Not everybody voted for Eisenhower, but he was probably the most genuinely liked President we ever had.
At Augusta National Golf Club, where he was a member for almost 20 years, Eisenhower is remembered mostly as a good man to play golf with. If it were not for the team of secret servicemen dressed in sports shirts and side arms, who shadowed him 200 yards away in a golf cart, Ike could have been taken for just another member out on the course for a day of golf. That was the way the President wanted it. One of the first things he did on leaving the White House was to plead with his fellow members at Augusta to start calling him by his first name again.
"He never acted like a President," remembers Hord Hardin, himself a former chief executive of Augusta. "There was no ceremony. At the first tee, we'd throw up four balls and the two closest were partners, the way we did with everyone else."
Make no mistake about it, Dwight Eisenhower was passionate about the game of golf. It has been calculated that during his eight-year Presidency, he managed to get in 800 rounds. He played 221 of them at Augusta. One hundred rounds a year is a lot of golf by anyone's standards, and it is unlikely any other President could have indulged himself to such a degree. One of the enduring images of the 1950s was Eisenhower playing on the putting green he'd installed on the south lawn of the White House. And when he wasn't working on his short game, Eisenhower was hitting long irons into a net in the basement.
Every President is criticized to some degree for his choice of hobby no matter what it is. Thomas Jefferson had rather too many French vintages in his wine cellar. Franklin Roosevelt was forever fiddling with his stamp collection. And whenever you needed Harry Truman, he was out on his damned boat. Ike came in for some satiric commentary about his golf.
It could not entirely escape editorial notice that national policy sometimes seemed to be forged in a small room over the golf shop at Augusta National -- indeed, the famous "Eisenhower Doctrine," outlining America's willingness to use force in the Middle East, was announced within a fairway wood of the first tee. There was a popular bumper sticker of the time that read, "BEN HOGAN FOR PRESIDENT. IF WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A GOLFER, LET'S HAVE A GOOD ONE."
In the main, he was spared the kind of scathing criticism we now heap on our chief executives as a matter of course. Indeed, it worked the other way. Until the 1950s, golf did not rank particularly high in the American sporting consciousness. But how bad a game could it be if Ike loved it so? First Eisenhower and then the grayish image of Arnold Palmer, hitching up his pants and slashing at the ball as if he had a personal grudge against it, powered the enormous postwar boom in golf.
I remember once playing on a crowded course with a Texan whose politics would have made Rush Limbaugh look like a flower child. As we waited at the tee, he exclaimed, "God, I sometimes wish Adlai Stevenson has been elected President. Then maybe some of these morons in front of us would be off playing tennis."
As mush as Eisenhower loved the game, and no one ever loved it more, Augusta was not just a golf club for him. Since his graduation from West Point in 1915, he had led the traditionally nomadic life of a professional soldier, living in 23 different homes, from rough-hewn junior officer's quarters to ornate European palaces suitable for five-star generals. The Eisenhower Cabin at Augusta, anonymously paid for by some of his fellow members, was to be the closest thing he had to a regular home in 35 years. Additionally, Augusta was the informal political headquarters from where he ascended to the Presidency.
Ike first came to Augusta in 1948 as he guest of William Robinson, the general manager and later publisher of the New York Herald Tribune. Robinson, an effusive Irishman, was one of the super advertising salesmen in the history of the newspaper game. It was said he could sell suspenders to a scarecrow.
One of Robinson's biggest selling jobs was to convince a reluctant Eisenhower to write his war memoirs, Crusade in Europe, a huge publishing success, which, thanks to a favorable tax ruling, netted the General about $500,000. This was Judith Krantz money in those days, and Ike turned it over to Cliff Roberts, the eminence grise of Augusta, who invested it for him. Robinson and Roberts became, in time, the chief henchmen in what came to be known as "the Gang," an informal group of Augusta members, bound by golf, money in at least seven figures, and a devotion to the political career of Dwight David Eisenhower.
The Gang included Robert Woodruff, chairman of the board of Coca-Cola, and Ellis (Slats) Slater, president of Frankfort Distilleries. They were a mixed lot. Roberts may have been an icicle dressed in a green blazer, but W. Alton (Pete) Jones was an exuberant poor boy who had struck it so rich as president of Cities Service Company he was uneasy unless he had at least $50,000 in cash in his pants pocket. He was also so cheap, he never bought a tee and wouldn't play until his caddie scratched up a free one someplace. The lone Democrat in the Gang was George Allen, who looked, and sometimes acted, like a clown, but was, in fact, a brilliant corporate lawyer and a savvy political insider.
Together, they were Ike's crowd. They played golf with him when the sun was shining and bridge with him when it wasn't. They supported Eisenhower's political aspirations with advice, hard work, and still harder cash. When Eisenhower wanted to talk politics, they were ready with sophisticated advice. When Ike just wanted to relax, it was, "If you will kindly pass me some bourbon and a splash of branch water, I find myself in memory of an anecdote."