In July of 1960, General Eisenhower had been President of the United States for seven and one-half years. His mood was light: the burden of office would soon be lifted, and he could retire to his farm in Gettysburg. He attended the Republican National Convention in Chicago that month with the idea that he would enjoy himself. Yes, he had to give a speech, but that was his only obligation. The rest of the work fell to his Vice President, Richard Nixon, who would soon be, officially, the Republican candidate for President of the United States.
Ike delivered a decent valedictory, recounting the state of the United States, paying tribute to the good, hardworking citizens of the country. He read the whole thing. Even though the TelePrompTer had been invented by then, it was clear from the YouTube clips of the event that Eisenhower wasn't using one. He did get a bit emotional at one point, but the bulk of the speech was read in that tidy, clipped, flat tone one associates with the General.
During the convention, Eisenhower mentioned that he kept pictures of four great Americans on the wall of his office. One of the pictures was that of Robert E. Lee. This revelation prompted a letter from a New York dentist, Dr. Leon W. Scott, to the President asking him why. The exchange between the two is given below.
The reference for this is Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, “Dwight D. Eisenhower, Records as President, 1953-1961; White House Central Files, President’s Personal File Series, Box 743, Folder: PPF 29-S Lee, General Robert E.”
August 1, 1960
Mr. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dear Mr. President:
At the Republican Convention I heard you mention that you have the pictures of four (4) great Americans in your office, and that included in these is a picture of Robert E. Lee.
I do not understand how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, and why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.
The most outstanding thing that Robert E. Lee did, was to devote his best efforts to the destruction of the United States Government, and I am sure that you do not say that a person who tries to destroy our Government is worthy of being held as one of our heroes.
Will you please tell me just why you hold him in such high esteem?
Leon W. Scott
Eisenhower’s reply is as follows:
August 9, 1960
Dear Dr. Scott:
Respecting your August 1 inquiry calling attention to my often expressed admiration for General Robert E. Lee, I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War between the States the issue of secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted.
General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was a poised and inspiring leader, true to the high trust reposed in him by millions of his fellow citizens; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.
From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the Nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.
Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.
Dwight D. Eisenhower