Truman, Eisenhower organizations split on letter calling for respectful civic engagement

Unique call to action based on eroding confidence in bedrock institutions

By: - September 7, 2023 4:25 pm
Closure of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum due to the COVID-19 pandemic has undercut tourism revenue in Abilene as it has in other communities statewide. This statue of Eisenhower is on the Capitol grounds in Topeka.(Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The Eisenhower Foundation declined to sign a joint statement embraced by 13 other presidential foundations or centers calling for renewal of civil discourse in U.S. politics and strengthening of faith in American democracy. This statue of Eisenhower is on the Capitol grounds in Topeka. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Eisenhower Foundation declined to sign a statement embraced by 13 presidential centers and foundations that called for renewal of civility in public discourse and restoration of appreciation for principles of democracy, protection of rights for all and integrity of the voting system.

The statement was signed by nonprofit, private organizations affiliated with Presidents Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt.

The Truman Library Institute took part Thursday, but the Eisenhower Foundation was the lone legacy organization not participating in the communique.

Meredith Sleichter, executive director of the Eisenhower Foundation, said in a statement the organization “respectfully declined to sign.” It was the first collective statement from presidential centers and foundations, she said, but “we have had no collective discussion about it. Only an invitation to sign.”

“We recognize and respect that each presidential center and foundation has its own priorities and programs related to our democracy,” she said. “We look forward to meeting with the other centers and foundations later this year and expect that the agenda will include how the organizations may individually and collaboratively contribute to the national dialogue.”

The Truman and Eisenhower organizations have independent missions of honoring the presidents from Independence, Missouri, and Abilene, Kansas.

Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Presidential Foundation’s Leadership Forum, said the coalition’s unprecedented call to action was a response to past and current political campaigns crafted to weaken public confidence in government. The statement also served as a reaction to the ongoing movement to diminish faith in the electoral system, he said.

Polet said the Jan. 6, 2020, violent assault on the U.S. Capitol challenging President Donald Trump’s election loss and some of the street protests in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police, exposed frailties in the country’s democracy.

The 2024 election cycle and polarization of candidates provided an opportunity for organizations linked to former Democratic and Republican presidents to share an alternative vision of how the nation could move forward, Polet said.

“Concerns about the fragility of our democratic project are on the rise,” Polet said. “How to strengthen democratic practices is one of the great political imperatives of our time, and the presidential centers and foundations bring a distinctive credibility to that project. We are proud to partner with the other foundations and begin the hard work together of restoring the integrity of our political institutions.”

The statement from the presidential organizations said Americans were bound together by the constitutional right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. These linchpins of democracy enable the United States to continue on the path toward a more perfect union despite diversity of backgrounds, beliefs and views on issues, the statement said.

“We are a country rooted in the rule of law, where the protection of the rights of all people is paramount,” it said. “At the same time, we live among our fellow citizens, underscoring the importance of compassion, tolerance, pluralism and respect for others.”

Debate and disagreement were central features in a healthy democracy, the document said, and civility and respect in political discourse was essential. The United States could serve as a vibrant example to democratic movements around the world, it said, but that opportunity was undermined “when others see our own house in disarray.”

The statement said elected officials at local, state and national levels could influence the nation’s trajectory by leading effectively and striving to restore trust in public service. Everyone had a duty to engage in civil dialogue, respect democratic institutions and uphold secure and accessible elections, the statement said.

“Everywhere you look, Americans are losing confidence in our bedrock institutions,” said Gleaves Whitney, executive director of the Ford Presidential Foundation. “We are a resilient people who have faced many crises in the past. There is no doubt about our great capacity to
come together to make our country better for all. This united statement taps into that capacity.”

Trump doesn’t have a presidential foundation and wasn’t part of the collaborative statement. Trump has maintained the 2020 election was stolen from him. He has continued to campaign as a 2024 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination despite four felony indictments.

The group of 14 presidential foundations or centers were organized separately from presidential museums and libraries, which fall under jurisdiction of the National Archives.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.