COLUMBUS: Times are tough for Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, and Wasserman Schultz, the Democrats’ chairwoman, are trying to keep their parties from falling apart.
If he were alive, Akron’s Ray Bliss would sympathize with both.
When Bliss, who died in 1981, took over as GOP national chairman in 1965 he had a problem similar to theirs and maybe worse.
The Republican Party already had fallen apart, after the split caused by conservative Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss to incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Bliss’ job was to put it back together.
He had a not-so-secret weapon unavailable to Priebus or Wasserman Schultz, an above-the-fray enforcer named Dwight D. Eisenhower. Bliss was a nuts-and-bolts genius praised for his innovative use of polling and television and uncanny political instincts. All of that might not have been enough without Eisenhower in 1965.
He and Eisenhower made an odd couple.
Bliss, who never served in the military, was a bespectacled, behind-the-scenes operator, well known to political insiders but hardly a household name.
In 1965, few people in the world were better known or respected than “Ike.” As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, he led the effort to defeat Nazi Germany.
After the war, he served as Army chief of staff and then as president of Columbia University.
His partisan affiliation was uncertain, but Republicans were thrilled when he joined them and was elected president in 1952, the first Republican to capture the White House after four terms of Democrats.
Eisenhower easily won re-election in 1956.
When Ike talked, most everybody listened.
Initially, Bliss wasn’t Eisenhower’s ally. Bliss supported Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft’s losing effort to win the 1952 presidential nomination.
The two men, however, warmed to each other. The first opportunity came when Eisenhower campaigned in Ohio.
Political campaigns are messy and ignore timetables.
Eisenhower, with his military background, liked trains and campaign events to run on time. When he came to Ohio, Bliss, then the Ohio Republican chairman, saw to it that they did.
Their friendship grew during Eisenhower’s eight years as president. In 1965, Eisenhower’s suggestion that Bliss take over as national chairman ended any resistance from Goldwater.
As national chairman, one of Bliss’ first innovations was the Coordinating Committee. Ostensibly, the committee was set up to develop Republican positions on a wide range of issues.
Equally important was bringing party conservatives, moderates and liberals together. Their relationship in 1964 had been marked by name-calling, back-stabbing and worse things.
That’s where Eisenhower helped.
“He backed me up with deep intensity in the early days of my chairmanship,” Bliss said. “I mean, one thing he had, he had the respect of all factions. They were scared to death of him.”
Eisenhower came to committee meetings when he could and defended Bliss against critics.
He was particularly helpful to Bliss in Bliss’ complicated relationship with Richard M. Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice president for eight years.
Nixon, already quietly campaigning for the 1968 presidential nomination, sometimes missed Coordinating Committee meetings. When he did, he heard from Eisenhower and showed up the next time.
Eisenhower helped Bliss in other ways.
In 1965, Bliss had worked with Summit County Republican Chairman D.E. “Gene” Waddell to persuade John Ballard to run for Akron mayor.
Ballard had served in the Army during World War II under Eisenhower. When Eisenhower came to Cleveland for a Republican fundraiser, Bliss got Ballard together with his former commander-in-chief.
“I’d never met him before,” Ballard said of Eisenhower. “ … This amazed me.”
The party unity that Eisenhower enforced helped Nixon win the presidency in 1968.
These days, neither party has a respected elder statesman like Eisenhower. They both could use one.
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is writing a biography of Ray C. Bliss with John C. Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Hershey can be reached at email@example.com.