What was…The Ike and Mac Show?

Jul 26

What was…The Ike and Mac Show?

It is 1959, and President Eisenhower is on a tour of Europe. Things could be going better – Khrushchev has just become Premier of the Soviet Union, and Castro is kicking up a storm in Cuba. Meanwhile, Harold MacMillan has been the British Prime Minister for two years. He will have to fight his first election soon, and isn’t looking forward to it. His Tories are losing by elections, they’re behind in the polls, and Labour look dangerous.

What both men need is a bit of positive publicity. And what they do, years before the age of spin doctors and personality politics, is radical. They sit down together and set the world to rights. And make sure that there are cameras on them when they have their chat.

Today it’s hard enough to get our politicians off the telly. They’re the biggest media whores of our time: you can’t tune in to Ready Steady Cook without seeing David Cameron burning an omelette or watch any kind of social improvement programme without Anne Widdecombe popping up to tell people how they’re living their lives wrong.

But in 1959 this was something different. It was admittedly restrained by today’s standards; both men cordially praised each other and paid tribute to good Anglo-American relations. But once they started talking world peace, the soundbites of today flowed thick and fast. “War has become so frightening in its capacity for destruction of the whole of civilisation,” said Eisenhower, a fear which hadn’t stopped him frantically stocking up on nukes like the end of the world was nigh, which by now it was.

He then came out with a rather bizarre statement: “I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it.” This isn’t quite what one expects from the American President (“Sod it, I can’t be bothered”), but in any case it was taken as a mark of his rationality.

Once the two men had to talk specifics, it seemed they didn’t share as many opinions as they hoped. They discussed the Anglo-American efforts being made to control the Soviet Union’s attempts to dominate Western Europe, particularly in Berlin. Macmillan, who clearly hadn’t read his script closely enough, called for a summit meeting to discuss the Cold War and ways to bring it to an end. Eisenhower expressed his reservations, though he didn’t go quite so far as to say that he favoured the diplomatic process of having the most bombs.

The debate then moved to the topic of global poverty and the need to tackle it through expanding world trade. This prompted SuperMac to weigh in with his thoughts on the Commonwealth: “Don’t let anyone in America think it’s the sun setting on the British Empire, it’s the dawn rising on the new Commonwealth and it’s all part of the same story,” he said. Fortunately he didn’t see any need to specify whether or not this meant Britain was poised to invade most of the world again. The sentiment was what mattered, and Macmillan’s was going down a storm.

The televised talk was a success for the beleaguered Prime Minister. Initial protests by the Labour party – fearing the event would jeopardise its chances in the forthcoming General Election – were withdrawn. The conjunction of positive images of Macmillan appearing just as an election was imminent did not go unnoticed. Viewers saw the image of a Prime Minister above party politics. When Macmillan was asked about it he said that the visit had not been arranged for electoral purposes, but it was a “happy coincidence”. The election was called a week after the broadcast.

The Ike and Mac Show hustled in a new era of televised politics – 1959 was the first time television ever covered an election campaign, and the Tories won at a canter. The show might have saved Macmillan, but next time you see John Prescott stumbling around on Strictly Come Dancing you know exactly who to thank.

This article first appeared in the Oldie magazine.