March 3, 2008

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

President Eisenhower shows some pretty good form for a golfer with a bad left knee in a 1960 match at Augusta with Arnold Palmer, Cliff Roberts and Lt. General Leonard Dudley Heaton.

President Eisenhower shows some pretty good form for a golfer with a bad left knee in a 1960 match at Augusta with Arnold Palmer, Cliff Roberts and Lt. General Leonard Dudley Heaton.

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."

A private man who found himself increasingly in the public eye, Eisenhower could relax with the Gang at Augusta as he could nowhere else. The Gang also knew they had a political winner on their hands. In 1950, Eisenhower was demonstrably the most-popular public figure in America. In the pungent phrase of New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia about himself, Ike could have run on a "laundry ticket" and won any office he sought. President Harry Truman personally offered him the Democratic Party's nomination and never forgave him for eventually running as a Republican. Eisenhower was in a difficult political position. As a serving officer in the Army he was precluded by law from running for public office. If Ohio Senator Robert Taft, busy signing up delegates to the Republican Convention, was to be opposed, someone else would have to do it for him.

That is where the Gang and other Augusta members stepped in. With its widely distributed membership, Augusta's influential members were able to talk up Eisenhower's candidacy throughout the country. Roberts and others personally financed the first of the Citizens for Eisenhower volunteer organizations, which kept his name before the voters without the General's formal acknowledgment.

Some of the Gang were afraid that the simple old soldier from Abilene would be at a disadvantage in the political arena. In this, they missed their man. A five-star, general's flag is not awarded to the politically naive, and Eisenhower was as canny a politician as America has ever produced. Once, when Robinson and Roberts flew to Ike's headquarters in Paris to try to talk him into a preconvention declaration, Eisenhower demurred, saying, "The seeker is never so popular as the sought."

There was one final catch before Eisenhower entered the public arena: Money. Eisenhower told Roberts he would need financial help. "I could not possibly carry the load that each day brings to me," he wrote and added that all personal financial support must be given legally and "on the up and up."

Roberts assured him that it would be handled properly and when Eisenhower retired in 1952 he sought the nomination with a free will. Roberts, and even Bobby Jones, beginning to hobble on a cane, went to the convention to buttonhole delegates in support of Eisenhower.

What was "on the up and up" in the 1950s might not be so in today's sterner political climate. Eisenhower accepted money, travel and gifts from the Gang. Almost certainly his dues were paid by them.

It must be said the Gang did its office well. There is no record that any of them ever sought a position, asked a favor, or broke a confidence.

After he retired, Ike acknowledged his considerable debt to "his Augusta Gang."

"These were men of discretion," he wrote, "men who, already successful, made no attempt to profit by our association. It is a most impossible for me to describe how valuable their friendship was to me. Any person enjoys his or her friends; a President needs them, perhaps more intensely at times than anything else."

When the Eisenhowers were at Augusta, Ike ran the Gang through its paces like a drill instructor with a batch of new recruits. Roberts remembered, many times after a round of golf he was about to stretch out for a nap only to have Eisenhower's orderly roust him out, saying, "The Boss is ready to play bridge."

Ike was a world-class bridge player, but it was a game he played at Augusta only when it was raining or dark. Golf was his passion and he lost himself in the game.

One way to escape the pressures of high office is to let the striking of a 7-iron become, for a moment, the most important thing in the world. One Augusta member, who played regularly with Ike, said he had never seen a man with such intense concentration.

Golf was not an easy pursuit for Eisenhower. His promising future as halfback on the Army football team had been cut down in 1912 when he wrenched his left knee getting ready for the Army-Navy game. It was a debilitating injury that would have kept him out of West Point, had he not already been there, and bothered him for the rest of his life. He did not start playing golf seriously until he was in his 40s. A late-starting, single-pinned golfer, Eisenhower had trouble transferring his weight to the left and played with a permanent pronounced fade. A common enough fault in golf, but a particularly exasperating one for someone accustomed to excellence in all things. It was probably not a source of amusement to Ike that the forward members tees at Augusta were sometimes called the "Eisenhower tees" and the infuriating pine in the 17th fairway he invariably hit is still referred to as "Ike's Tree."

By all accounts, he was also an indifferent putter. During the war, he had taken up oil painting at the suggestion of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, although he admitted, "My hands are better suited to an axe handle than a tiny brush." His large bony hands were apparently not much suited for handling the flat stick, either. It is a testament to his spirit that a chronic slicer who couldn't putt managed to hold on to an 18-handicap at Augusta and break 80 there four times.

Eisenhower would dearly have loved to attend a Masters Tournament, but it was agreed his presence would be too distracting; so the President would frequently come down on the Monday following the tournament and play with the new champion.

Arnold Palmer, who first played at Augusta National with the President on the Monday after winning the 1958 Masters, remembers Eisenhower as "a regular guy on the golf course and a regular guy period."

Ike was also a ferocious competitor who fought for a $1 nassau bet as if he were hitting a beach in France. "When somebody conceded him a putt," Palmer recalls, "there was no discussion. He picked up his ball and moved on fast."

Eisenhower was eager to improve his game and he was always after Palmer for tips, sometimes with unhappy results. During one of their rounds, Palmer suggested keeping his right arm closer to his side during the swing. Like the good soldier he was, Ike did what he was told. But, during his long Army career, Eisenhower had adopted the practice of keeping his belt buckle on his right hip, and by the end of the round, his right elbow was bleeding.

One of many reasons for Eisenhower's popularity with the troops was that he was a general who could swear like a sergeant. At Augusta he is remembered as a man of moderate speech on the golf course, except when he missed a short putt. But there are ecclesiastical dispensations for that sort of thing.

Like many golfers, Eisenhower sometimes took a less than specific view of scoring. Robert E. Clark, who was then covering the White House for the International News Service, recalls that once Ike was on the North Portico with some sports figures and when asked about his golf game, he happily told his audience he had just shot a 72. That alerted the press corps, who knew Ike never flirted with par at Augusta. It turned out the President was talking about a little executive dog track near Gettysburg, Pa.

Rank does have its privileges and Eisenhower was not one to bend a fragile back to check his ball. At Burning Tree, outside Washington, D.C., where Ike played every Wednesday afternoon he could, he was famous for identifying his ball by rolling it over with his dub until the logo appeared. If his lie was improved as a result, nobody minded very much. One afternoon, Eisenhower was thus maneuvering his equipment when the ball somehow darted up against a rock.

"What happened?" Ike asked, looking sternly at his caddie.

"Mr. President," the caddie replied. "I'm afraid you have over-identified your ball."

Eisenhower was not hounded by the media as a President is today. When Ike came to Augusta, he was usually accompanied by six secret service officers and perhaps a dozen members of the press.

Only once during those eight Presidential years was the small press group allowed to accompany Ike on a full round at Augusta. They were treated to a rare sight. Ike hit two balls into the water at Rae's Creek, and the President, who did not take kindly to losing golf balls, stripped off his shoes and went after them to the delight of the reporters.

By modern contrast, Hardin recalls that when President Reagan made his one visit to Augusta, he was guarded by 90 operatives and trailed by a glum media contingent of more than 400. "The media in President Eisenhower's day," Hardin adds, "did not think they were as important as they do now."

By the end of his second term, Ike was in his 70s and tired. Even before accepting the burdens of the Presidency, he said, "The years are getting so they flash by me like the pickets on a fence." Now, eight years and one major heart attack later, he was ready to quit. It was not given to him to exit public life as he wished. He took the loss of Vice President Richard Nixon to Senator John F. Kennedy as a personal failure. He called it, "the biggest defeat of my life." Mamie, who knew something of being a golf widow, comforted him saying he should go immediately to Augusta, "and knock the hell out of the ball and forget about it."

Ike was on an 11 o'clock flight the morning after the election.

The General's heart began to fail him. He suffered his second major heart attack in November 1965 while staying in the Augusta cottage. In time Ike's doctors permitted him to play golf again but confined him to carts and only on par-3 courses. Ike grumbled that next they would be making him hit from the ladies' tees. In April 1968, he suffered a third attack and was sent to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D. C. He would not leave it alive. On March 28, 1969, with his family in attendance, he turned to his son, John, and said, "I want to go. God take me." And then he was gone.

Dwight D. Eisenhower held center stage in the global drama of this century for more than 20 years. He led a mighty Army to victory on the European continent in as noble a crusade as any armed force has ever been engaged. He was President for two terms during some of the bitterest years of the Cold War.

From all of that, what do you suppose was his happiest memory? That is easy. On Feb. 6, 1968, at age 77, he was playing at Seven Lakes Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif., when he came to the 104-yard, par-3, 13th hole. He hit a 9-iron into the cup for his first and only hole-in-one. He said it was "the thrill of a lifetime."