Saturday, 9 March 2013

Reconsidering Ike

Sometimes you just get a sense that everything that you've done in your research is leading to one day; to one event; to one moment. On Thursday, I reached that moment. The morning was tough. The Ike Reconsidered Conference didn't start until 2pm and I wasn't needed there until 1.30 (I was on the first panel). As has been the habit of the week, I was awake really early and watched the sleet drift between the high rises of Lexington Avenue. I walked to find where I needed to be later in the day, catching myself thinking of the slight unreality of being on Park Avenue when my research life resides in Uxbridge. I breakfasted at a diner, smirking wryly at its name : 'Heaven' and taking note that the hard-working New Yorkers whisking coffee, pancakes, eggs, toast and the rest between, around and to the tables had their roots in South Asia, not in the waves of original immigrants that have made NYC so unique. It was good to see: this city evolves.

The rest of the morning is spent pacing my room. Checking and rechecking my notes. Everything about me is nervous. All I can do properly is pace.  

Finally, suited and booted, I headed for The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Roosevelt House - yes, where FDR and Eleanor lived along with his mother Sara, a matching pair of townhouses now owned by Hunter College and restored as a teaching and conference venue. The great and the good trooped in: academics; a few students; a lot of grey hair and the odd Eisenhower, a Brownell and even a guru or two. As I took my place in the front row, a small man moving slowly with a wheeled frame and a carer arrived and sat behind me: Fred Greenstein: guru.

So, that first panel. Faced by more Eisenhower talent in one room than I've encountered in the past four years (that's not true: it's more Ike interest and knowledge than I've encountered in my life). Faced by more undistilled Eisenhower expertise than I'm ever likely to see again. Faced by TV cameras, a stills man and a see of expectant faces. I wasn't too worried. Ben Greene was going first. I could sit back for a little while, gather my thoughts and learn. So Mike Desch, chair of Political Science at Notre Dame, takes the podium and introduces us...and switches the order. Now I'm first. The Conference's first speaker. The token Brit. The warm up act before the serious business takes over.

I grab my notes and bottle of water and head for the podium. There's a little added tension as the organisers fail at first to load my slides. Then I'm off. 12 minutes. I'll be counted down at five and two. Once I'm running, I'm fine. Professional habits take over. There are a couple of half-jokes, well received. It's boo Kennedy and hurrah Ike. I conclude. There's applause and smiling faces in the front row. I sit down. Have I passed the test? Am I now in the Eisenhower club?

My next moments of fear: the discussants stand to forensically chew over our papers. I've been the first of three and the first discussant is Yanek Mieczkowski who has just published a book seemingly at the heart of my area. He's going to slaughter me. He'll expose my thin veneer of knowledge; my charlatan status as interloper in the academic world. But he's kind. He's insightful. He's generous - he 'gets' what I'm trying to do. And then Mike Desch. He has criticisms and they're justified, but he picks out lines of the writing for comment. After years of being warned to curb my 'purple prose' (and God knows, I tell my students the same), here's a political scientist rolling a phrase in his mouth like a fine wine. And it's my phrase and it's deepest ruby red.

The questions come - and they come to me. And I know the answers. This is working. I'm actually in my element and I can deal with this. I'm not out on a limb. My paper dovetails with those of Ben and Zuoyue. Clever organisers. I'm less good in the sum-up, undercutting my own point. But I still leave the stage on a high. Was it any good? I haven't checked back yet. Apparently it'll be preserved for posterity here.

At the break, people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed the paper. Even guru Fred. I can't help grinning. The event continues and the calibre of speaker and quality of presentation keeps on climbing. This is my great opportunity to sit at the feet of real Eisenhower knowledge and absorb.

We're well fed with the great and the good of Hunter and the - it has to be said - dwindling Eisenhower community. The night is about straight backed men and women who fought Washington's good fight - alongside or opposed to the General. There aren't too many left. I cherish their experience.

Yesterday was more of the same - but this time I could just sit back and enjoy. David Eisenhower is both genial and wise (and looks scarily like his grandfather). Ann Brownell adds colour and context. I record a short video piece at lunchtime - I hope the editing is kind.

Dave Nichols, perhaps the foremost Eisenhower scholar currently in the field introduces me to people as his protégée. I could not have a wiser, kinder mentor.

We finish with a reception. More handshakes, more fantastic contacts, more kind words. The pub is mooted, but I collapse onto the bed as soon as I get back to the hotel. 12 hours on, I'm still buzzing.           

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