Rheta Johnson: Land of the free, and the brave but humble

July 6, 2013 7:51:29 PM

Rheta Grimsley Johnson -


ABILENE, Kan. -- I like driving across Kansas. A lot of people find it boring, the endless wheat fields and blur of farm-implement dealers and land laid out flat like a patchwork quilt on your grandmother's properly made bed. 


I find it comforting, always a pleasure to discover that the whole nation isn't an unbroken strand of shopping malls and predictably landscaped chain restaurants, and that honest sweat still figures into our national equation. 


I also like Ike. He considered Kansas home. Eisenhower wasn't the perfect leader; nobody is. But he was a leader, one willing to serve and aware of his own limitations. 


"Always try to associate yourself closely and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you," Dwight D. Eisenhower said. That's a far cry from today's Republican mantra. 


His boyhood home here in workaday Abilene is revealing. It is part of the Presidential Library complex, right across from the Greyhound Hall of Fame -- yes, Virginia -- not far from the town's treasured antique C.W. Parker Carousel. 


The Eisenhowers were simple, hardworking people who worked the land, believed strongly in education and, in the case of Ike's Mennonite mother, Ida, eschewed war. She is said to have been upset when the third of her seven sons decided to make the military his career.  


The family home, which didn't have indoor plumbing until Ike was 18, has the same furnishings today that it had when Ida died here in 1946. Homemade coverlets and pillows. A Sunday parlor. Family photographs on the wall. 


The modest home looks a most unlikely springboard for the 11-foot bronze statue of a general that stands nearby. 


"I'm just a Kansas farm boy who did his duty," Ike said to New York crowds through the tickertape when the war was done. He was coy about wanting to run for the presidency, but he seemed earnestly to believe that part about duty. 


His failures are well-known. His lukewarm support of civil-rights issues cost the country. The popular Eisenhower might have thrown his considerable weight harder on the side of righteousness. He had, after all, seen firsthand in war that blood is blood, the operative color red. 


He might have been a great president. 


As it was, he was a good one. Competent, confident, a beacon of postwar calm. Ike had that humility factor missing from today's self-important and militaristic, mostly nonveteran, politicians. Think Dick Cheney, poster boy for chicken hawks. 


"The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene," Ike said in June 1945, remembering his roots after the rise.  


This country's Independence Day celebration always should be a lesson in history, not just a riot of fireworks and barbecue. Would that we could return to the days before empty jingoism and jargon, when war was considered more serious than a football game, when our top citizens knew they could learn valuable lessons from those who came before, those, to quote Ike, who know more. 


There is a place, of course, for pride and patriotism. Linked with a willingness to learn, it is a daunting combination.