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Did Four Words Make a President?

How powerful are slogans in politics? Here's a story of one that helped to make history.

In 1952 America was at a political crossroads. Should we continue our worldwide commitments undertaken during World War II, or should we pull back behind our frontiers? The problem found human expression in two leaders. One was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, recently victorious in Europe and since 1950 commander of NATO.

The America-First group was led by Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, whose partisans wanted to return to policies pursued before the advent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Both were contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. Up to the convention, scheduled for July 7 at Chicago, many seasoned observers thought the General had only an outside chance.

As one who believed that the U.S. should play a strong and constant role in world affairs, I wondered what could be done to help his cause. Perhaps a good slogan would project the story.

The problem was how to put that case in a way which would not be too invidious to the powerful senator and his ardent cohorts. I tried dozens of word combinations, ranging from delicately suggestive to the heavily assertive, and kept coming back to on: ONLY IKE CAN WIN. That said it. Even the deep-eyed Taft people couldn't fault that one too much. It was a simple declaration of belief. Oft-repeated, it would snowball with every repetition.

I wrote a little copy and took it to star layout man Herb Nixon, who was at the time probably the best-known outdoor panel designer in America. Herb caught my enthusiasm. He produced a couple of all-type layouts, with the big black slogan at the top. I grabbed them and set off for the offices of Citizens for Eisenhower, headed by Sig Larmon, president of Young & Repubican. He wasn't there, but I left the ads with an explanatory note. He called me later that afternoon -- said that this was just what he needed and that he was rushing them to Chicago.

That was on a Friday. The delegates were already arriving for the opening of the convention on Monday.

Tuesday evening I listened to the radio from the convention. A reporter asked Governor Fine of Pennsylvania, "Governor, the Citizens for Eisenhower are spreading their line everywhere that 'Only Ike Can Win'. Do you agree?" The governor said he did.

Thursday evening, Governor Lee of Colorado was being interviewed by a reporter for NBC. "We're seeing that slogan 'Only Ike Can Win' all over the place. Does this mean that Senator Taft can't win?" The Governor said the field was still open.

The rest, of course, is history. General Eisenhower won the nomination on the first ballot July 11, and a candidate destined to become one of our best-loved presidents was swept into the White House on a tidal wave of popular approval.

Reviewing the campaign a few years ago in a piece in the New York Times, former Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy said the the reason Eisenhower was nominated at the convention was "the belief that Senator Taft could not win."

Did those four words tip the balance? I like to think so.