Thursday, 10 December 2015

The core of Eisenhower is a single brief scene - the Blair House conversation, III.i, between Eisenhower and Truman. In what is otherwise one of the weaker plays of the Nixoniad, lacking the drama of Harry Truman Part II and Richard Nixon or the strong characterisation of Lyndon Johnson Part II, this scene stands out - and serves as the best and most explicit exposition of the central conflict of the entire play, tying its theme directly to Nixon for the first time.

Truman has summoned Eisenhower to ask him to run as the Democratic candidate for president, with Truman's backing. Unknown to Truman, but not to the audience, Eisenhower has already agreed with Republican leaders to run as their candidate, with Nixon as the candidate for vice-president; he meets Truman, therefore, suspecting what Truman is going to ask, and already knowing that he will turn it down, but (perhaps) curious about Truman's way of thinking. In two long speeches, almost soliloquising, with only brief interjections from Eisenhower, Truman sums up his presidency; the decision to use nuclear weapons in 1945, the stalemated war in Korea, the undermining of his adminstration harking back to the downfall of White (seen in Harry Truman Part I ) and the disloyalty of MacArthur. Eisenhower at first joins in this reminiscence, relating his own memories of the aftermath of the bombing of Manila (an invention by Shakespeare; the historical Eisenhower never visited Manila). He then, with shocking brutality, attacks Truman's weakness in agonising about his various decisions. "Not for an instant had I stayed my hand" if the choice of nuclear weapon use had been his, he tells Truman.

The speech is a startling change of tone in a scene which, until this point, has resembled nothing more than the Rose Garden scene between Truman and Marshall in Act II of Harry Truman Part I. Even Eisenhower's vocabulary is, until this point, deliberately similar to Marshall - the sudden shift from bland agreement to direct conflict underlines the difference between Marshall the noble and loyal elder statesman and Eisenhower the smooth and subtle plotter. It's a device Shakespeare would use again, of course, with the shift in Hamlet from Polonius the doddering purveyor of moralisms to Polonius the conniving accomplice of Claudius.

Eisenhower upbraids the tortured Truman as morally weak. In the European campaign, he tells him, he dealt with men "more highly-minded and more soaring proud" even than MacArthur - his generals in the European campaign - and "made them bend to harness/ Or broke them in the bending". Eisenhower, in this speech, embodies the total-war philosophy that White bemoans in his "use of weapons" speech in Act V of Harry Truman Part I - no ally is too proud or aggressive to use, no weapon too destructive to wield.

Nixon is never mentioned by name in the scene, but the reference back to White's words is clear - the latest weapon which Eisenhower has decided to use is White's persecutor.

Truman's decision to withdraw from the campaign follows in the next scene - another invention by Shakespeare; historically, Truman fully intended to run until after his defeat in the New Hampshire primary. And, in his discussion with Bess in the following scene, he uses almost exactly the same words which Shakespeare will give to Lyndon Johnson in the same position in Lyndon Johnson Part III - "the road too hard, cold wind and little ease/ The load too great to bear" compared with Johnson's "set down, set down, the load you long have bore/ Lift now your tread from off the awful road" as he talks himself into standing down from re-election sixteen years later.

History rhymes for Shakespeare; the return of the exiled York in Richard II heralds his son's failed plot in Henry V and points the way for a later York's grab for power in Henry VI Part I, and Richard's murderous ambition in Richard III. Every generation, as he tells it, throws up a new ambitious Plantagenet, warrior-like, tender towards perceived insults and jealous of his rights. In the same way, he constructs the Nixoniad in two halves, with Truman's agonies of indecision echoed by the ghost-haunted Johnson, and Eisenhower's all-in approach to both war and politics epitomised in Nixon.

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