When Dwight D Eisenhower was elected president of the United States in 1952, the country was involved in a protracted war in Korea, which the president-elect was determined to end. "I know how you feel, militarily," he told his old colleague General Mark Clark, commander of UN forces, when the two met in Korea that year, "but I feel I have a mandate from the people to stop this fighting. That's my decision." The mandate Eisenhower referred to was his strong showing in the general election, in which he'd received 33 million votes, winning 47 per cent of the popular vote and ushering in Republican victories in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In a reaction critics called "the revolt of the moderates", the American people, still reeling from depression in the 1930s and war in the 1940s, had thrown their support behind the smiling, avuncular candidate who had accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany. To voters, Eisenhower was immediately recognisable and reassuring, a living embodiment of the kind of stability to which they longed to return.
Eisenhower himself was ready, even eager, to deliver exactly that kind of stability. In front of the newly ubiquitous television cameras, he was folksy and upbeat, fond of bridge and golf, dedicated to American peace and prosperity. The Second World War had provided him with his only claim on the US electoral process. At the time of his nomination, he'd neither voted in a presidential election nor cared about them enough even to define his own party affiliation clearly - indeed, when President Harry S Truman enthusiastically put him forward as a candidate, he assumed Eisenhower would run as a Democrat.
This may have been wishful thinking on Truman's part. Eisenhower's temperament, and the methods he'd used throughout the Second World War to unite often bickering staffs of commanders from many countries, was perfectly suited to the Republicanism of the 1950s: administrative, non-prescriptive, consensus-driven and deeply conservative ("The best leadership," he'd once written to his son John, "does not demand theatrics."). This essentially laissez-fair style, it's often been noted, ended up bringing him into conflict far more often with radical members of the Republicans than with the Democrats who were supposed to be his ideological opposites.
Initially, however, as Eisenhower took office, amid the dismantling of the Korean War and resounding approval ratings often as high as 70 per cent, party strife was the last thing on the minds of most Americans. It's true that Democrats bemoaned his choice of cabinet members - "eight millionaires and a plumber", as they were described by commentators worried that newly resurgent big business in the US would now be calling the shots in the White House, a worry enlarged by comments like the one Charles Wilson, the secretary of defence, made to Congress: "What was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." This sounded echoes of the election of President William Taft, when government watchers had commented that the new president was a very amiable man - surrounded by men who knew exactly what they wanted.
The game of presidential echoes is a familiar pastime in the United States, and it's one Jim Newton plays with some relish in his new book Eisenhower: The White House Years. The natural comparison is with General Ulysses S Grant, likewise a successful army commander in a high-stakes conflict, likewise an amiable man, likewise seen by some as a political neophyte. Newton hesitates to make the Grant comparison, not only because he's no doubt loath to invoke the spectre of Grant's administrative incompetence but because Newton has bigger game in his crosshairs. "All presidents save Washington are measured against their predecessors," he tells us. "As he ascended to the presidency that January morning , Eisenhower naturally was most compared to Truman, just as Truman had been so unfavourably, and unfairly, been found wanting in the shadow of FDR. In fact, the president whose background and service most resembled those that Ike brought to the office was Washington himself."