Dwight Eisenhower smiled his broad smile and put his legs up. The inaugurations for his second term as President of the United States were over, one held privately two days earlier and one publicly yesterday at the East Portico of the United States Capitol. Chief Justice Earl Warren swore him in while Senate Minority Leader William Knowland swore in Richard Nixon. It was Tuesday and he was sitting in the Oval Office doing nothing for the time being.
He wasn’t a smug man but gave himself credit for crushing Adlai Stevenson in 1952 by 442 to 89 electoral votes and again last year 457 to 73 electoral votes. A new law prevented him from running a third time, although if it wasn’t illegal, he thought he might goose egg his opponent the next time around.
After the swearing in at the Capitol he rode in an open car, standing on the back seat, doffing his hat, and waving. His Secret Service bodyguards eyed the crowd, looking for anything that didn’t look right. Nobody took any potshots at him.
He grinned to himself thinking about Bill Knowland swearing in Richard Nixon. The senator had been battling the vice-president for years over control of the California Republican Party. There was no love lost between the two men. The senator’s father owned and operated the Oakland Tribune newspaper. One day as Dick Nixon was being driven across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland an aide pointed out the Tribune Tower.
“Bastards,” the vice-president grumbled.
“William Knowland brings to his leadership post an absolute, unflinching integrity that rises above politics,” Ike said. “In the councils of government, he inspires faith in his motives and gives weight to his words.”
When the president was asked by a reporter “if you could give us an example of a major idea of Richard Nixon’s that you have adopted as the final decider,” Ike thought a minute before answering.
“I don’t remember,” he finally said. “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
He dropped the brainwork before it gave him a headache. He moved on to another thought. What he was thinking of was reviving his administration’s promotion of American art. They had pioneered funding for international art exhibitions as well as sponsoring tours of American jazz, dance, and theater. He thought of it as psychological warfare, countering Soviet propaganda.
“As long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be healthy controversy and progress in art,” he said in 1954. “How different it is in tyranny. When artists are made the slaves and tools of the state, when artists become the chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested, and creation and genius are destroyed.” When the Russians spouted off about racism in the United States, he sent the opera “Porgy and Bess” on tour.
He looked out the window. There was a light fog, light rain, and it was in the mid-40s. He wanted to play a round of golf, but even his presidential powers weren’t going to make that happen. He looked around for a cigarette even though he had stopped smoking when he became the commander-in-chief. He smoked three and four packs of Camel cigarettes for decades until his doctor told him to stop, or else. But when he tried to drop the habit, it wasn’t easy. He realized going cold turkey wasn’t going to work for him.
“I decided to make a game of the whole business and try to achieve a feeling of some superiority when I saw others smoking while I no longer did,” he said. He left packs of cigarettes, lighters, and ashtrays on shelves and tables around his office. “I made it a practice to offer a cigarette to anyone who came in while mentally reminding myself as I sat down, ‘I don’t have to do what that poor fellow is doing.’”
He thought about Jackson Pollack, who had died less than five months earlier. He didn’t especially like the man’s drip paintings. “It’s a piece of canvas that looks like a broken-down Tin Lizzie, loaded with paint, has been driven over it.” But there was no denying he was celebrated as the quintessential American action painter. He wondered if a retrospective might be in order, something on the order of a world tour, something that would demonstrate how alive and virile American art was.
Ten years earlier the State Department bought nearly eighty paintings from modern artists and mounted them in a traveling exhibition called “Advancing American Art.” The show toured South America and Europe. Maybe the same could be done for Jackson Pollack before everybody forgot about him.
Ike started painting after the war when he was president of Columbia University. He had finished dozens of canvasses. He worked in oils. He made a painting of his family home where he grew up as Little Ike. His favorite was the portrait he painted of Mamie, his wife. She liked it, too. When he was asked about the symbolism of one of his non-portraits, he said, “They would have burned this shit a long time ago if I weren’t President of the United States.”
When he thought about Jackson Pollack, he thought about what he painted in his spare time. It wasn’t abstraction by any means. “I am hopeless if you talk abstraction or heavy impressionism,” he said. “I wouldn’t know a thing about it because I want to paint something that you can see whether I use the color I should have or not. Except for people coming and seeing me painting and saying, ‘Oh, give me that one Ike,’ or ‘Oh, please can I have this one’ and so on, otherwise none of these would exist, I tell you.”
He wrote to Winston Churchill, his comrade in arms during the war, whose paintings he liked. “I have a lot of fun since I took it up, in my somewhat miserable way, your hobby of painting. I have had no instruction, have no talent, and certainly no justification for covering nice, white canvas with the kind of daubs that seem constantly to spring from my brushes. Nevertheless, I like it tremendously.”
President Eisenhower had been briefed about the failed attempt on his life at Ebbets Field. He was filled in about the dummy run which resulted in polishing off Jackson Pollack. He learned a New York City mobster was involved, and a New York City private detective had saved the day. He regretted the painter’s death but took it in stride. He had been in the middle of a maelstrom, being the allied commander in Europe during World War Two, that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. There had been threats to his life during the war and during his first term in office. Jackson Pollack didn’t see it coming, he thought, but I see it coming every day.
He had read about Jackson Pollack’s death in The New York Times, about how he had been ejected from his car after slamming into a tree and been killed when his head hit a rock landing headfirst. One of his own top men, “Old Blood and Guts,” died in a fender bender. Some of the men under his command often said, “our blood his guts.” It was seven months after VE Day. He was sitting in the back of his Cadillac limousine when the driver plunked into the passenger-side of a left-turning Army truck in Manheim, Germany.
He was on his way to a pheasant hunting trip with his Chief of Staff. Minutes before the low-speed accident, glancing at derelict cars abandoned on the side of the road, he said, “How awful war is.” George Patton knew what he was talking about. He had been the first officer appointed to the new U. S Army Tank Corps. in 1917.
His car was barely damaged. Nobody was hurt except him. He suffered a gash on his forehead. Within minutes he was unexpectedly paralyzed. He was taken to the 130th Station Hospital in Heidelberg. X-rays revealed two crushed vertebrae. He had broken his neck when he hit the glass partition separating him from his driver.
He lay in traction for nearly two weeks. Fishhooks were stuck into his cheeks on both sides of his upper jaw. They were attached to weights to stabilize his neck. When he showed few signs of recovery, doctors put him into a body cast to prepare him for a flight home, but he died before the flight was finalized.
Jackson Pollack, it turned out, had a harder head than George Patton. It had taken more to kill the Long Island painter than it did to kill the three-star general of the Third Army. When George Patton wheeled his armored divisions to counterattack during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, he said, “The Krauts have stuck their heads in the meat grinder and I’ve got hold of the handle.”
There was one thing Ike liked about the Abstract Expressionist’s paintings and that was their size. They were mural-size. They spilled off their canvasses and into infinity. They didn’t have a beginning or an end. His own paintings were a slice of life. Jackson Pollack’s paintings were life. Ike reproduced what he saw. Jackson Pollack reproduced himself. He was there to see if anybody looked.
President Eisenhower doodled when he was thinking. He was doodling as he sat in his easy chair. He drew trees with a pencil. He wrote Pollack’s name at the ends of the topmost branches and then drew a hammer and sickle on another sheet of his notepad. If the State Department could be persuaded to stage a show, it would accomplish one more thing, besides beneficial propaganda about the manliness of American culture. It would send a signal to the Communists and their fellow travelers that the White House was fully aware of what they up to.
They were barking up the wrong tree if they thought he could be turned from his task as easily as they thought. He played poker through his years at West Point, in the peacetime Army after World War One, in the Philippines while serving time under the son-of-a-bitch Douglas MacArthur, and during the war years. He was married to a well-off woman, but if he hadn’t been he could have lived well enough on his winnings. He didn’t keep any cards up his well-worn sleeve, but the Ace of Spades was tattooed on his ass.
He had a warm smile that could turn cold as the North Pole in an instant. The Cold War was the new war. He had prevailed in Europe and Korea. He wasn’t about to lose the current conflict, no matter how far in the shadows it tried to stay. He turned on the table lamp beside him.
His vice-president had been bruised in a sledding accident that morning. He had a cast-iron head, though, and survived, but wouldn’t be bothering him for a few days. He thanked God for small miracles. When Mamie walked in and announced lunch, he said he wasn’t altogether hungry and would just have toast and coffee. He drank upwards of twenty cups of coffee a day.
“No, Mr. President,” she said. “You might run the country, but I turn the pork chops. Come and take your place at the table.”