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Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and the Presidential Transition that Changed America


Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and the Presidential Transition that Changed America

Reading John T. Shaw’s historical account of the 1960 presidential transition from the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy is a disquieting experience. For better or worse, we are presently living in perilous times, regularly shuttling between announcements of “Breaking News!” with presidential tweets thrown into the mix on a regular basis. For many citizens, each day requires a filtering process as we determine which news events merit attention.

RISING STAR, SETTING SUN is a scholarly account of a different time in the nation’s political life. While many of us still vividly recall the 1960s as the moment we first became interested in politics, it was such a different time in our history that it might as well have been long ago in an unrecognizable world. Beyond the technological differences, here is one example of how the political world has changed since the period Shaw covers. In these 240 pages, not one female politician merits mention. The only women discussed here are spouses of politicians or secretaries. This is not a criticism, but simply an observation. Reading history is more than reading the past --- it is to ponder the future and speculate on how the era in which we currently dwell will be chronicled by future historians.

"Shaw’s elegant style and attention to history serve as a reminder of [the] peaceful transition [of power] that was a turning point in the 20th century."

While Shaw ostensibly focuses on the transition period between the two administrations exiting and entering the White House, his sweeping book covers much more ground. RISING STAR, SETTING SUN provides concise but vivid accounts of Eisenhower, the war hero president who was the first holder of the office precluded from serving more than two terms. In 1961, Eisenhower would leave office at age 70, the oldest of any president at the end of his term. The 1960 election marked the passage of the presidency to a new generation of Americans. Both Kennedy and Richard Nixon were in their 40s.

Shaw chronicles Eisenhower’s dilemma over the election. He despised Kennedy as inexperienced, unqualified and a man who would seek to undo all he believed he had accomplished. However, “Ike” was more ambivalent towards Nixon. Even though they had served together for eight years, the two never warmed to each other. Eisenhower almost dumped Nixon from the ticket because of the Checkers scandal that occurred during the 1952 campaign. He also encouraged Nixon to leave the ticket four years later by offering him a cabinet position. Eventually Eisenhower would work for Nixon’s election in 1960, but his support may have come too late.

Once the election was over, Eisenhower was determined to be constructive and generous with the exchange of information between the old and new administrations. He wished to avoid appearing “fatherly” to Kennedy, who was only five years older than John Eisenhower, who worked in his father’s administration. But bitterness between the Kennedy and Eisenhower teams remained from a campaign that Eisenhower believed unfairly attacked his tenure in the White House. To his golf and bridge friends, he confided that he believed Kennedy was prepared to take credit for all of the positive things that might happen in the opening months of his administration but would blame any bad news on the previous administration. Eisenhower’s anger also caused him to alter his post-White House plans. Rather than retreat from the public eye, he now intended to write and speak on his middle-of-the road political philosophy.

And while preparing the nation for a new president, Eisenhower had to continue governing the nation. On December 5, 1960, he suspended nuclear arms talks with the Soviet Union. On January 1, 1961, the U.S. suspended diplomatic relations with Cuba. During the transition, the incoming administration was briefed on plans to overthrow the Castro government. Kennedy asked point-blank if the U.S. should support efforts to overthrow Castro, and Eisenhower declared that they should.

America is a country that prides itself on the peaceful transition of power. Even the most bitter election contests accomplish this. It is a part of our history that we must honor, no matter how difficult or how angry we might be over the outcome. Shaw’s elegant style and attention to history serve as a reminder of that peaceful transition that was a turning point in the 20th century.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 25, 2018

Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and the Presidential Transition that Changed America
by John T. Shaw

  • Publication Date: September 10, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, Politics
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus Books
  • ISBN-10: 1643132288
  • ISBN-13: 9781643132280