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Book Report: Eisenhower: An in-depth look

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a much admired and likeable president who accomplished much during his presidency. But he wasn't much of a speaker.

There's an old story that wonders what Ike would have said had he the opportunity to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

Here, the wags say, is how he would have begun: "I'm not certain, but I think it was about 87 years ago...."

Despite all the jokes, Eisenhower did have a speechwriter who ended up as president of the University of Minnesota. That would be Malcolm Moos.

In a new book, "Eisenhower: The White House Years" (Doubleday, $29.95), author Jim Newton paints an interesting picture of Ike, his strengths, his weaknesses, a temper that would melt varnish. For all that, he left us with a great highway system and did a great deal in what has become unfairly known as the dull 1950s.

One of his most memorable speeches was a collaboration between speechwriter Moos and Ike himself. It was Ike's valedictory, in which they warned the citizenry of the power of the burgeoning "military-industrial complex."

Newton, who has already written a biography of Chief Justice Earl Warren, tells the story of the Ike-Moos speech in great detail and garners a lot of respect for Eisenhower, a former general who knew that generals aren't perfect. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have contributed endorsements to the book's dust jacket.


On the regional front we have a beautiful book from the University of Minnesota Press, "Twelve Owls," text by ornithologist Laura Erickson, illustrations by Betsy Bowen ($19.95).

Minnesota boasts 12 varieties of owls, from the tiny Northern Saw-whet, which is only eight inches long, to the Great Gray Owl, perhaps the world's largest.

Erickson, who has a radio show called "For the Birds" writes about each with authority and whimsy. And Grand Marais resident Betsy Bowen paints beautiful pictures of them, which are beautifully reproduced and which approximate the size of their subjects.

"Last Words, Frederick's Binary: A Narrative of Trials, Travels, Travails Told in a Pithy and Whimsical Style with Comments and Photos," by Frederick Blanch (North Star Press, $14.95): Whatever is a "binary?" I guess it's a biography organized like a dictionary, from A to Z.

Blanch, a composer, TV producer, sometime entrepreneur, who grew up along the Zumbro River, begins at the beginning with A for "abdomen -- A secret I try to keep hidden beneath my belt. As I mature, I fear my secret has been somewhat compromised by malfunctioning belts."

He ends with Z for "zigzag:" "Webster's defines zigzag as something having the shape of a series of sharp turns. For me, even though operating mostly within the big lump of the bell-curve, that pretty much sums up my life. Only good fortune has prevented catastrophe on some of those sharp turns, but I suspect the next one could be fatal."

In between he has lots of fun with his life, which he peppers with opinions, like P for "poetry:"

"I will not make the following judgment, though I am tempted (and then he makes it!): Poetry is a great solipsistic exercise for many contemporary writers, many of whom seem not to have much of a foundation in the art. Nowadays, tortured little lines of prose are often labeled poetry. Much 'poetic' outpouring sounds as if the frustrated writer lacks a 'dog to kick.' Scant attention to the beauty of sound, metaphor, meter, rhyme, or, I assume - effort -- is required for its production, resulting in pronouncements of scant consequence. Oh! Mia culpa?"

Crotchety doesn't end there. Here's Blanch's take on his father: "With some memorable exceptions, fond memories of my father are just about as numerous as the occasions when I won the Irish Sweepstakes."

All in all, it's a tasty "bio-nary," that's lots of a fun, that doesn't pull any punches.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.