Book Review by John P. Schreitmueller
Three Days in January
By Bret Baier
New York, Harper Collins, 2017
We live in tumultuous political times. Only 7 months after the presidential election of 2016, the 24/7 news is filled with negativity and partisan agendas. I’ll withhold my opinions; suffice to say what most of the media cranks out these days would make old pros like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley sick to their stomachs. Perhaps a bit of reading and history will serve as an elixir.
I recently received Bret Baier’s Three Days in January as a gift, and I quickly devoured it. Given the contemporary political climate, Baier’s book seems particularly meaningful.
Three Days in January gives us an intimate and fascinating look into the life and times of former president and 5 star General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower. Specifically, the book zeros in on the thoughtfully executed transition of power between President Eisenhower’s administration and the incoming administration of John F. Kennedy in January 1961, and Eisenhower’s brilliant message to the nation – and the world – as he departed the White House.
Let me confess at the outset I clearly remember President Eisenhower. He was in office during much of my childhood. His photograph hung proudly in our classrooms, next to the American flag to which we pledged allegiance every weekday morning. I recall him talking about our efforts to place a satellite in orbit after the Soviet Union orbited Sputnik 1 in 1957. My father, a decorated World War II combat veteran, taught me about the crucial role Eisenhower, then as Supreme Commander of Allied forces fighting in Europe, played in defeating Nazi Germany. We admired and loved President Eisenhower, and he commanded levels of respect few American presidents have enjoyed.
Baier does a superb job describing Eisenhower’s early years, his advancement as an Army officer, his challenges commanding the Allies (the combined forces of the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France) against Adolf Hitler’s formidable war machine between 1942 and 1945, and both of his victorious presidential campaigns, in 1952 and 1956. But what Baier accomplishes beyond the weight of so much incredible history is a fascinating re-discovery of our 34th president, and the manner in which Eisenhower demonstrated a brand of authentic leadership few chief executives have provided.
History has often portrayed the Eisenhower presidency as a rather vanilla experience. The nation, with the exception of the Korean War he brought to an end in 1953, was at peace. Our economy reached levels of prosperity that remain enviable. World War II veterans were home, enjoying steady jobs, buying houses on the Veteran’s Bill, buying cars and making babies (my brother and I are both results of the post-World War II “Baby Boom”). We had black and white television, and we watched Captain Kangaroo on Saturday mornings.
However, history is just beginning to reveal the vast complexities and dangers President Eisenhower faced from his first day in office to his last. The threat of nuclear war was very real during Eisenhower’s White House years. He expertly managed a tenuous relationship with Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. He carefully balanced defense spending and domestic spending. He accomplished civil rights legislation few realize took place on his watch. He initiated the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that eventually landed Americans on the moon in 1969. And the highways we take for granted today throughout the US (and that are in bad need of updating) are the brainchild of Eisenhower and his administration.
President Eisenhower was not a career politician. Prior to his election as president in 1952, he had never run for elective office. He was not a “camera-ready” individual. He spoke from the heart, and was far less concerned with what we call political correctness today than he was with telling the truth. Honesty, integrity and honor are words that come to mind in describing Eisenhower, as Baier goes through considerable lengths to (accurately) demonstrate.
After President Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, the new president communicated frequently with President Eisenhower, and, although they came from opposing political parties and were stylistically oceans apart, the two forged a special working relationship. Kennedy trusted Eisenhower, and he valued his predecessor’s incredible experience.
Only 90 days into Kennedy’s presidency, the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba shook the new president to the core. The US had failed to accomplish its objectives, and the botched operation cost precious lives. The Kennedy administration, which had been touted as almost magic, was instantly tarnished. But to his credit, President Kennedy immediately took responsibility. He reached out to President Eisenhower, who flew to Camp David to assist Kennedy in the painful aftermath of the event. A Pulitzer-winning photo of Kennedy and Eisenhower walking together and deep in thought at Camp David adorns the cover of Three Days in January. For those who are students of the Cold War, that photo is worth thousands of words.
Three Days in January is an excellent example of how history provides portraits of authentic leadership. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president some 6 decades ago. But his legacy provides a template for leadership through which contemporary executives can profit immensely. I would urge further reading on our 34th president, and considering how his brand of leadership so richly applies to our contemporary conditions.
Congratulations to Bret Baier for a superb piece of work. DO read this book.
John P. Schreitmueller is an award-winning author, a board-certified executive coach practitioner, and historian of the Cold War era. His Atlanta-based practice, Resolute Consulting Group LLC, provides highly confidential leadership guidance to business owners, senior executives and professionals.