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The art of civil discourse

Historian David Eisenhower '66 makes room on TV for respectful debate of today's issues.

By
Katherine Towler
May 9, 2018
"The Whole Truth with David Eisenhower"

"The Whole Truth with David Eisenhower" debuted in 2016. It airs on more than 140 public stations nationwide. 

David Eisenhower '66 is not ready to give up on civil discourse, scarce as it may be in the public realm of today’s America. As host of the public television show “The Whole Truth with David Eisenhower,” he brings the perspective of a historian and the diplomacy of a seasoned political observer to a discussion of the pressing issues of our times. The program explicitly takes a different approach by avoiding punditry and argument, focusing instead on a nuanced examination of the question at hand.

Eisenhower describes the show’s objective as understanding a problem rather than reaching a resolution. “The most important precondition for civil discourse is an agreement that an issue or problem exists,” he says. “We have serious questions we have to address as a society. This is not so easy to accept. We establish this on the show. If we can agree we have problems, we can start there.”

Launched in 2016 by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, a nonprofit, educational organization dedicated to creating an informed citizenry, the program takes aim at the pervasive notion that, as a promo puts it, “the American marketplace of ideas has become dysfunctional.” Originating at WHYY-TV in Philadelphia, “The Whole Truth with David Eisenhower” is currently launching its third season. It is distributed by American Public Television and shown on more than 140 stations nationwide.

David Eisenhower ‘66 interviews retired Gen. Wesley Clark on “The Whole Truth.”

Each half-hour episode brings together several guests who are experts in their fields to define and explore a given issue. In the first two seasons, shows have been devoted to such topics as income inequality, feminism in the age of Trump, the war in Iraq, poverty in the shadow of plenty, demographics and immigration, 21st-century Islam, and the state of American democracy. Guests have included Gen. Wesley Clark; former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; former Congressman Tom Davis, R-Va.; MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Joan Walsh; Bloomberg’s Al Hunt; and cable news host and commentator Greta van Susteren.

In designing the show, co-executive producers Craig Snyder and Brian O’Reilly have made a number of careful choices. Guests represent a range of political backgrounds and areas of expertise, and are asked to work toward a common understanding of the problem under discussion. The production team sees to this both in the preparation of participants prior to taping and in Eisenhower’s evenhanded direction of the discussion. The result is a refreshingly thoughtful look at the challenges facing our country and the world. No shouting, no talking over each other; just respectful debate and discussion.

The guests spend 45 minutes together before taping begins. “This is one dynamic that makes a difference,” Eisenhower says. “Our guests are not in a remote studio. We ask people not to comment on events that are happening currently, but to look at the topic in a broader perspective. This puts people in a different frame of mind.”

These factors are key to creating the show’s civil tone, Eisenhower believes. Each segment begins with an introduction from Eisenhower, in which he explains the program’s goals and outlines the topic of the day. The show concludes with a wrap-up from Eisenhower that gets at “the whole truth” of the subject.

Snyder, now president of the World Affairs Council, was former chief of staff for the late Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and was intrigued by the challenge of bringing a truly nonpartisan discussion of the issues to television. He partnered with Brian O’Reilly, a seasoned television professional, and worked on producing a pilot for the show with Maryland Public Television in 2012 with Specter as host, but the project was put on hold when Specter became ill. When Snyder was appointed president of the World Affairs Council, they resurrected the idea and reached out to Eisenhower, someone they felt would be ideal for the role of host.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower walks with Principal William G. Saltonstall and his wife, Katharyn, during a visit to Exeter in 1962.

The grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, David Eisenhower is an author, historian and academic. He has had a front-row seat to history in two White House administrations, as a boy during his grandfather’s presidency and as a son-in-law during the Nixon years. He and Julie Nixon were married 1968, a month before her father took office. These twin experiences have given him an enduring interest in the institution and history of the presidency.

After graduating from Phillips Exeter, Eisenhower attended Amherst College, served in the Naval Reserve, and completed his J.D. at George Washington University Law School. Today he is director of the Institute for Public Service at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. He also serves as a senior research fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and is a fellow in the International Relations Department at the university.

Eisenhower’s book "Eisenhower at War: 1943-1945" takes an in-depth look at his grandfather’s leadership as supreme allied commander in Europe. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1986 and named by Time magazine as one of the five best nonfiction books of the year. More recently, Eisenhower teamed up with Julie to write "Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969." The memoir chronicles the years after Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, when he came to live on the family farm in Gettysburg where David and his family lived, during David’s adolescence. In a review, the Los Angeles Times describes "Going Home to Glory" as a “nostalgic tribute [that] could be seen as an implicit rebuke to those who reject [President Eisenhower’s] legacy of bipartisanship and moderation.”

David Eisenhower PEAN.

Eisenhower is currently completing a collection of essays on the 1950s and on significant decision points in Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, under contract with Simon & Schuster. He is also continuing work on the larger project begun with "Eisenhower at War" of documenting a complete narrative of the Eisenhower presidency. This, he notes, will probably occupy him for the rest of his life.

Of the many years he has devoted to writing about his grandfather, Eisenhower says, “My father and grandfather experienced his career together. They were very close. I was outside it. This made me very curious about my grandfather and his times.”

Eisenhower recalls his grandfather as a man “of greatness” who both inspired and challenged him. In "Going Home to Glory," he quotes from a letter Ike sent him when he was a prep at Exeter. Ike advised him to use shoe trees in his golf shoes so they would look decent, then ended the letter with a metaphor: “Well, if you’re learning to box, keep your left eye almost out in front so that your jab would have the power of the shoulder behind it; the right fist close, the glove close to your chin and your weight so evenly distributed you can move rapidly in any direction.”

Ike often used boxing as a metaphor for politics. Now, his grandson understood, he was using it for the rigors of being away from home at 14 and making his way at Exeter."

Ike often used boxing as a metaphor for politics. Now, his grandson understood, he was using it for the rigors of being away from home at 14 and making his way at Exeter.

Becoming a television show host was an unexpected opportunity that came Eisenhower’s way when Craig Snyder contacted him. “Being on television is harder than it looks,” he says of the experience. “I have frequently been an interview subject, but I have not been someone who asks the questions. I find it very challenging to keep a conversation going. I have renewed respect for people who do this.”

He has also gained respect for the level of research necessary to properly prepare for each program’s topic. For a recent taping, he read the entire battery of Supreme Court decisions on Citizens United and completed exhaustive reading on income inequality and the impact of technological change on the American standard of living. His research included the recently published "The Rise and Fall of American Growth" by Robert Gordon, which he describes as an 800-page “page turner.”

“Cable talk today is all about holding an audience. There’s no real possibility for interfaith dialogue,” Eisenhower says of the climate in which his show is being produced. “I take topics as they come. I want the episodes to leave people thinking. I’m not pressing for any particular conclusion.”

Eisenhower describes the media today as a fragmented creator of distinct and separate communities. The media fosters solidarity among these communities by speaking only to them and for them. He recalls the heated debates of the 1960s, when he was a student at Exeter and Amherst. He had many conversations about the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam with people of all viewpoints. “The idea behind these conversations was that we would disagree, but in the end be on the same page,” he says.

He sees the lack of civility in our public discourse today as a perhaps inevitable outcome of the end of the Cold War. “What accounted for civility in the Eisenhower years was a common sense of identity as Americans. In the 1960s, we could disagree, but we came back to some agreement that Vietnam was a difficult issue for the United States. There was argument, yes, but it was friendlier than the debates we are having today. I didn’t see friendships breaking up over these differences in the 1960s. Today you see friendships break up over political differences.”

There’s a regenerative capacity in a country like ours. It’s what we have; it’s who we are.”

At the Institute for Public Service, Eisenhower administers the academic concentration in political communications and supervises his students’ honors thesis projects. He teaches a seminar, Communication and the Presidency, that serves as the basis for the students’ thesis work. Students enrolled in the seminar conduct primary research at presidential libraries, the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Penn is the only university in the country with a program that sends undergraduates to conduct primary research at the presidential libraries.

Students Eisenhower has worked with in recent years have conducted research on President Kennedy’s speeches, President Reagan’s war on drugs, Lady Bird Johnson’s whistle-stop campaign through the South, and President Wilson’s address to a joint session of Congress on the League of Nations. "The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation," by Scott D. Reich (2013), had its origins as a thesis in Eisenhower’s seminar.

Every four years, Eisenhower offers a seminar that includes attending the Democratic and Republican national conventions and in-depth study of the campaigns and debates.

In the work he does with his undergraduates, Eisenhower feels he has a glimpse of the future, and this gives him considerable hope. “I am very optimistic based on my work with students,” he says. “Today’s students have made tremendous progress. The undergrads I see today are performing at a 75 percent better rate than the undergrads I had 20 years ago. They think well and write well. I work with terrific young people who accomplish things that impress me every semester. I don’t have to teach dedication. I think we have very promising leadership coming up in America.”

Eisenhower recalls his years at the Academy as one of the most important chapters of his life. He found the coursework very challenging, but the time at Exeter taught him “to never settle for second best.” He has found the same commitment to excellence at the University of Pennsylvania and values what this atmosphere encourages.

“I see myself as a student of the subjects I present,” he reflects. “I came to Penn in the first place because I knew I couldn’t live as a solitary writer. I’m part of a community of writers and scholars.”

At Penn, he is among like-minded historians who, for example, worry about what one of President Johnson’s key speeches on the Vietnam War really meant. The dissection of this history, he says, is what they live by. The sharing of ideas is an ongoing and fruitful exchange.

The caliber of the instructors at Exeter left a lasting impression on Eisenhower. He credits them with preparing him well for college and graduate study. In particular, he valued the small classes and the seminar approach. “The teaching at Exeter was very interactive. My Institute for Public Service at Penn is similar — small, interactive, and project-driven. What I experienced at Exeter was a teaching mode I carried with me and brought to Penn.”

The excitement Eisenhower feels about today’s students and what they are capable of accomplishing is matched by his conviction that the United States will come out of the current period in our history with much of what defines this country intact.

“We’re in a transition period,” he explains. “We can worry too much about this. The resilience of our system is amazing to me. We will come out of this period of transition with a world that feels if not familiar, that will at least work for us. I’m confident of that.”

As a student of history, he takes the long view. “People didn’t see the way out of Vietnam and the turmoil of the 1960s, but we came out of it in a much better place. There’s a regenerative capacity in a country like ours. It’s what we have; it’s who we are.”

Watch "The Whole Truth"

The Season 3 premiere episode of “The Whole Truth with David Eisenhower” will be broadcast nationwide by June. You can find the airdate for your area on the website of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia at www.WACphila.org under the page for “The Whole Truth.” All episodes for the previous seasons can also be viewed on this website.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.