By Frank Wilson

As recounted in Eisenhower: A Life, a new brief biography by the British writer Paul Johnson, the life of Dwight David Eisenhower was one of steady, uninterrupted success - five-star general, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, 34th president of the United States, elected twice, both times by landslides, and still popular when he left office. Heck, just a year before he died, he hit a hole-in-one on the golf course.

Yet one feels sad when one finishes Johnson's book. Not for Eisenhower, but for the country he served so well.

A joke making the rounds as his presidency neared its end told of the Eisenhower doll: You wound it up and it did nothing for eight years. But we could use plenty of that nothing these days. As Johnson points out, Eisenhower gave America nearly "a decade of unexampled prosperity and calm. The country had emerged from the Korean War and the excesses of McCarthyism. Inflation was low. Budgets were in balance or with manageable deficits. The military-industrial complex was kept under control. . . . Thanks to Ike's fiscal restraint, prices remained stable and unemployment only a little more than 4 percent."

One detail in particular stands out. In 1960, average household income was $5,620, which was 30 percent higher than in 1950. Make the adjustment for inflation, and in today's dollars that 1960 household income amounts to $43,617. According to the Census Bureau, median household income last year was $51,939, noticeably below the 1999 record of $56,895 and only $8,322 more than in 1960.

Had he heard the joke about the doll, Eisenhower probably would have laughed, at least to himself. "He seems to have found it convenient and useful," Johnson writes, "for people to get him wrong. He chuckled within himself."

So, at the time, the all-too-conventional wisdom had it that he was inarticulate, not too bright, lacking in cunning, and lazy, preferring to hit the links and leave the business of government to subordinates. His critics, Johnson writes, got things exactly wrong: "Ike was highly intelligent, knew exactly how to use the English language, was extremely hardworking, and very crafty. In practice, he made all the key decisions, and everyone had to report to him on what they were doing and why." Like any genuine leader, Eisenhower did not insinuate. He issued commands. He led from above.

He was also, Johnson notes, "one of the few American generals who put the lives of his troops above every other consideration - except ultimate victory." And his training and experience as a staff general, not a field general - Eisenhower had never been in battle prior to becoming supreme commander - profoundly affected his thinking regarding national security:

Ever since he had been in charge of the Philippines arms budget in the 1930s, he had felt passionately about the cost of armaments. Unusual in a professional soldier, his instincts were all in favor of economy. That is, once the needs of national security were satisfied, he grudged every dollar spent.

Johnson cites a speech Eisenhower gave early in his first term to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, filled with "amazing words coming from a general":

"We pay for a single fighter plane with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

There was, in fact, only one American military intervention abroad during Eisenhower's eight years in office: the July 1958 landing of troops in Lebanon at the request of that country's president. There was no fighting, there were no casualties, and the troops were withdrawn in November. The success of the operation was no accident. Eisenhower, Johnson points out, "was an experienced and successful general who knew what troops could, and could not, do." He drily notes that "the contrast between Ike's movement into Lebanon and John F. Kennedy's abortive Bay of Pigs misadventure . . . could not have been more marked."

Eisenhower's famous farewell warning about the military-industrial complex was grounded in his belief that it was the duty of the chief executive to protect the economy as a whole. He wrote, "It is the nature of our government that everyone, except for a thin layer at the top, is working, knowingly or unknowingly, to damage our economy, the reason being that they see the need for more and more resources for their own service or agency, and the valuable results that can be achieved through added effort in their own particular element."

Johnson's book is only 134 pages long, including the index. Even the members of today's less-than-stellar political class ought to be able find the time and muster the brain power to read it. One in particular might find it interesting to learn that during six of Eisenhower's eight years in office, both houses of Congress were controlled by the opposition party.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue." presterfrank@gmail.com