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Response to Review of Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics

Thank you to Thomas Tunstall Allcock for his generous and thoughtful review of Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics. He is right that in the coming years we will want to learn more about Eisenhower’s personal engagement with the celebrity politics of his administration. I suspect the best source for that information will be the Robert Montgomery papers, which are housed at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. An Academy Award nominee and successful NBC producer, Montgomery helped the president adapt to the new medium of television. Unfortunately, Montgomery’s papers are not open to researchers and we may have to wait years before a fuller portrait arrives. In the meantime, I recommend Craig Allen’s excellent 1993 book, Eisenhower and the Mass Media: Peace, Prosperity, and Prime-Time TV, which remains an eye-opening account of the many media innovations of the Eisenhower presidency. It was in Allen’s book that I found passing reference to the Ike Day television program that became the centerpiece of Liking Ike.  What my research aimed to reveal was that Eisenhower’s advisers used celebrity itself as a form of media, a means of distributing rhetoric and information that would complement the work of television, newspapers, and magazines.

It has always struck me that political campaigns are ultimately creative enterprises: like a long-running drama, they develop character, symbol, and imagery across a narrative that extends for months and, even, years. In writing this book, I wanted to apply some of my training as a literary critic to Eisenhower’s campaigns, paying particular attention to the production of political spectacles by Madison Avenue advertising agencies. Led by the rich archives at nearly a dozen research libraries, I tried to establish the connections between diverse figures and institutions, showing, for example, how the motivational psychology of Dr. Ernest Dichter helped shaped campaign materials in 1956, or how BBDO, the agency of record for Eisenhower’s GOP, was simultaneously involved in cultivating the actor Ronald Reagan as a corporate spokesman and conservative firebrand. This wider perspective helps us appreciate the institutionalization of celebrity politics in the 1950s and the degree to which political glamour became a matter of cultural discussion and debate. Liking Ike was a collaborative activity that emanated from New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, but it spread widely to communities across the United States. As Allcock justly observes, the president periodically steps out of focus in my account, but I hope that in his absence, other participants appear in stronger relief.

I appreciate Allcock’s comments about the book’s relevance to the current political scene. I began thinking about celebrity politics during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 gubernatorial campaign and finished Liking Ike as Donald Trump began to dominate the Republican presidential primaries. Eisenhower is so categorically different from Trump that contrasting the two might seem pointless, but let me offer one thought here. Eisenhower and his advisers used spectacle and glamour to draw swing voting Democrats and independents to the GOP. Their goal was to ‘leaven the loaf of political content’, as a memo from the agency Young & Rubicam explained. What were useful tools to Eisenhower, however, became the very center of Trump’s campaign. As Walter Benjamin might say, politics is aesthetics in Trump’s presidency. From the desire to select cabinet members that “look the part” to the practice of engineering applause for his speeches, he seems primarily a showman, a political aesthetician trying desperately to maintain the illusion of efficacy that he cultivated on his television show, The Apprentice. And yet as the administration wears on, we are learning that Trump is a consumer of television as much as he is a performer on it. Policies, issues, conflicts only exist for the president as they appear on TV, and when advisers seek his attention, they often go on television to communicate their opinions. Although he was not always successful, part of Eisenhower’s complexity lay in his striving for integrity in the midst of cold realities.  This quality seems wholly absent in Trump.

My thanks again to Dr Allcock for his stimulating review.