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Published: November 27, 2012
 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69

 
 

Best Business Books 2012: Biography

Virtuosity Squared


Jean Edward Smith
Eisenhower in War and Peace
(Random House, 2012)

Walter Isaacson
Steve Jobs
(Simon & Schuster, 2011)

Mark Kurlansky
Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man
(Doubleday, 2012)


Great ideas often emerge from the collision of two disciplines. So, it seems, do great leaders. The subjects of this year’s best biographies — Dwight Eisenhower, who led two of the world’s largest organizations, the Allied forces in Europe during World War II and the U.S. government; Steve Jobs, who built the world’s most valuable company; and Clarence Birdseye, a self-taught biologist who pioneered a technology that revolutionized food production — each illustrate how often individual success is rooted in a merging of disciplinary virtuosity.

Eisenhower combined political genius with superb executive skills. Jobs wed the sensibility of an aesthete to an innovator’s appreciation of technology. As for Birdseye, he once said that he “was not cut out for a career in pure science and wanted to get into some field where [he] could apply scientific knowledge to an economic opportunity.”

Politics and Management

Eisenhower in War and Peace, Jean Edward Smith’s powerful story of the 34th U.S. president, is my choice for the best biography of the year. Dwight David Eisenhower was as close to a man for all seasons as we have had among presidents. He successfully led the military, the government, and a university.

Smith, a political scientist, historian, and political economist, is well prepared to tackle Eisenhower’s life, having previously written biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant, the latter another general who won a war by overwhelming force. Eisenhower can be read as a chronicle of World War II, a presidential coming-of-age story, or a portrait of the United States as an emerging global superpower. Business readers, though, should also regard it as an outstanding case study in leadership; in an alternative universe, one cannot imagine Eisenhower running General Motors Company into bankruptcy.

Smith portrays Eisenhower as a decisive yet thoughtful leader who had a genius for manipulating written and unwritten rules, bureaucracy, and social maps. He made the U.S. presidency look so easy that “Ike” himself has receded into a faint image of an avuncular leader who presided over a dull, prosperous era. Smith corrects numerous errors in accounts by others and gives us Eisenhower in full: not only the most popular president in modern U.S. history, but also one of the most effective.

Eisenhower ended the unwinnable war in Korea, Smith reminds us, “with honor and dignity,” and he sent the Seventh Fleet to protect Formosa from invasion by China. On the domestic front, he tamed inflation, balanced the federal budget, and quelled unemployment with the massive public works project of building the interstate highway system. Eisenhower unwound the excesses of McCarthyism, ended military foot-dragging over desegregation, and appointed the judge who gave Rosa Parks her seat in the front of the bus. In one of his most difficult decisions, he sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to put down defiance of a court order to desegregate the schools. Of course, he also made mistakes — we have Eisenhower to thank for the CIA coup that overturned a government in Iran, with repercussions still felt today.

Perhaps Eisenhower’s most significant legacy, though, was to show the value of cooperation and restraint. He thawed the Cold War, beat back attempts at gunboat diplomacy by U.S. allies, and worked easily across party lines. He also crushed two attempts by the National Security Council to use atomic weapons after World War II, insisting on a policy of deterrence instead.

 
 
 
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