John Rubinstein, a Tony-winning theater veteran who made his Broadway debut 51 years ago originating the role of Pippin, a cheerful curly-haired young prince looking forward to a life of adventure, determined to “find my corner of the sky,” is now Off-Broadway portraying Dwight Eisenhower, an affable bald former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and thirty-fourth president of the United States of America, looking back at a life of achievement.
Rubinstein seems the right match for a role that emphasizes the congeniality of a historical figure whose primary philosophy (for government and everything else) can be summed up as: Moderation (aka middle of the road.) Rubinstein’s performance as Eisenhower, which quietly and effectively brings out what’s funny and what’s poignant in the script, is in most respects as welcome as all the other performances I’ve seen of his (most recently “Mornings at Seven” in 2021 at the same theater.)
But “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground,” a solo show running at Theatre at St. Clements, seems intended as a history lesson in defense of 34, and perhaps a lesson about historians. As history, it gave me pause.
As the play begins, it is 1962, and Ike, who departed the White House about 18 months earlier, is in his home study in Gettysburg, Pa. reading a magazine article that infuriates him. It is a ranking by 75 historians of all the presidents of the United States, and he comes in at twenty-second.
The ranking is not just a running joke in the play (“it takes a lot of brass to stick me three worse than Herbert Hoover.”) It turns out to be the framing device for the show. “I’m not sure I want to waste my time trying to defend myself to these bozos,” Eisenhower says on the telephone with the editor of his next book, about his presidency, but then he turns on a bulky tape recorder, and starts to defend himself.
Now, despite that frame, much of the play is a recounting of his life story, accompanied by a series of old photographs that illustrate his stories projected onto what is otherwise a picture window looking out into a bucolic field and a colorful sunset. With an appealing folksiness, Ike describes a middle American childhood in Kansas the son of a hard-working father and an unusually well-educated, religious mother. “I think I know something about command structure and organization, but there was nothing I could have taught Ida Eisenhower. She had six boys in three rooms, all rotating chores…” The most fascinating tidbit is that his mother was a committed pacifist. In this retelling, Ike only went to West Point as a way to get a college education for free. His mother didn’t try to stop him, and joined the rest of the family in seeing him off at the railroad depot. But his brother later told him that when she went back home, “for the first time in his life, he’d heard Mother cry.”
Ike spends time talking about his decades-long military career; we get a few minutes of a tribute to his wife of many years, Mamie; we hear about the tragic death of their first son. He recounts D-Day, and a visit to a Nazi concentration camp. All of this is earnestly recounted and easy to digest.
But when Eisenhower talks about his political career and his political philosophy, I found myself resisting. Little of my reaction was disagreement with his views. Rather, I just didn’t trust what he was saying.
I was suspicious about his explanation of his behavior connected to McCarthyism, and registered how little he talks about the integrity-impaired man he chose to be his vice president, Richard Nixon, but my skepticism was strongest during the few minutes Ike spends on his civil rights record. He first says “I’ll wager you fellas ranked me lower for that than anything else, but I think I did do some good there.”
He then talks about a Sergeant Moaney, who started as his aide in the military and then became his servant (although that is not the word he uses) in civilian life. “John Moaney is a colored man. He and his wife Delores live here with us, just as they did at Columbia [when he was president of the University] and at the White House.” From there, he tells us that, as president he finished desegregating the armed forces, a task that his predecessor President Harry S. Truman had begun; Ike called in federal troops to protect the nine Black students trying to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He tells us he passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first since Reconstruction – but the law was weakened by the Democrats. “Wasn’t perfect,” he says of the law. “Strongest part was supposed to be voting rights, but Lyndon Johnson over there running the Senate got most of that taken out. You can guess why.” Ike recounts all this while saying what New York theatergoers in 2023 would consider the right things to say (“there cannot be any second-class citizens in this country”; “it is not enough to say ‘well, it’s a start’”)
But I vaguely remembered from histories and biographies I’ve read that (unlike Kennedy) Eisenhower was uncomfortable socializing with Black people. This is why I decided to see if there was a view of Eisenhower’s civil rights record that differs from the laudable description in the play.
It didn’t take long. Most sources I found say he was “unenthusiastic” about the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating the nation’s public schools; “he avoided endorsing the Supreme Court’s decision, a silence that encouraged resistance to school desegregation.” And if he indeed signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he did so “despite his personal opposition to legislating racial equality.” (See, for example, this page from Stanford’s ML King Institute, and Why don’t we remember Eisenhower as a civil rights hero? on MSNBC.)
Since the play takes place in 1962, the dig he makes at LBJ is not, precisely speaking, inaccurate. But once Johnson became President after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, LBJ did more for civil rights than any U.S. president before or since (certainly more than Eisenhower.)
The Eisenhower in the play doesn’t outright lie; he sticks to specific accomplishments, without putting them in context. This is something that the real Eisenhower might well have done; it seems like human nature (or at least a politician’s strategy) to put a positive spin on the messy complications in your past.
The larger point is that a play constructed the way this one is – exclusively from the point of view of the character, even (especially?) when the character comes off as trustworthy and avuncular – is not an effective way to teach history. History is not just facts and figures. Context is central to history; and context changes with the times. It’s bracing to realize that Eisenhower’s pride in constructing the interstate highway system becomes a more ambiguous achievement from the perspective of our current climate crisis.
Yet, for all its flaws (and Eisenhower’s shortcomings), “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground” does wind up making a persuasive case that 34 deserves more respect than he received upon leaving office. That’s a case that many historians, journalists and those who pay attention to politics long have made; his reputation has grown steadily over the past sixty years. This may not be entirely because he serves as a markedly more favorable contrast to Republicans who have occupied the Oval Office subsequently. But there is little question what playwright Richard Hellesen is trying to do when he has Ike talk about “extremists just masquerading as conservatives” and make remarks like: “President of the United States ought to at least have some dignity. If you can’t respect the office, you deserve to be at the bottom.” and “Some days it feels like democracy is going to have a hell of a time persevering. But this piece of ground, that we all share…if we’re going to leave our young people something better, then we just can’t be complacent.”
Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground
Theatre at St. Clements through July 30. Update: Extended through August 20.
Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes, including an intermission
Tickets: $55 to $149
Written by Richard Hellesen
Directed by Peter Ellenstein
Scenic design by Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly; costume consultation by Sarah Conly; lighting design by Esquire Jauchem; and projection and sound design by Joe Huppert.
Cast: John Rubinstein