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Clio's Temple

The Wisdom of Ike

It's become so common a part of our political currency that we may forget how radical it was for the time. On this day in 1961, outgoing President Eisenhower made his farewell address to the American people. It included his famous warning: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

These words served as an epigraph for the novel Seven Days in May, a thriller about a clandestine coup plot against an unpopular President. Yet it may be sobering to recognize that Ike, looking backward over a half-century of service to the nation, couldn't have prophesied the dangers that would arise from multiple forces seeking to gain influence over the national government. It was considered slightly shocking for a career soldier to utter those words, but hardly so when we recognize the traditional role of the U.S. military prior to 1945 or how that role has changed.

Washington itself reflects these changes. When I first visited our nation's capital in 1964, green bluffs still rose on the Virginia shore of the Potomac. The Beltway was still a superhighway, not the vehicle-clogged parking lot it has become. What was true for the military-industrial complex is also true for the academic-governmental complex, for the medical-pharmaceutical complex, for the financial-governmental complex, and a number of others that have grown fat on Washington's largess. The green bluffs of the Potomac have been smothered by rank upon rank of high-rises.

Local politicians often decry the demands that Washington makes upon us. Most of us are prone to forget that the age of the Beltway Bandits is something that has arisen as a fruit of what we expect and demand of government. The thunderous demands that Washington live within its means are seldom accompanied by offers to sacrifice some of our cut of Washington's largess. Perhaps the most disastrous byproduct of all these changes is that our attitudes and rhetoric haven't kept pace. Instead of debate, we get posturing. Instead of the patient work of reforming Washington's ways, we get the back-and-forth of the perpetual campaign. I doubt that Ike would be happy with what's happened in the last fifty-two years, but at least he was looking backward. Those of us who try to look ahead ought to demand greater honesty of ourselves.

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