When John Rubinstein was 9 years old, he met President Eisenhower. His father, concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, was playing in Washington, D.C. and a friend of the family arranged for a White House tour with Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams. “At one point, he opened the door to a room and there was Eisenhower talking to a bunch of people. And [Adams] waved at him and Eisenhower came through the crowd and shook my hand and my sister's hand and talked quite a bit with my father and my mother,” Rubinstein tells. “I never forgot it. It was very exciting.”
Although Rubinstein met President Eisenhower, and even wore an “I Like Ike” button around the halls of his grade school during the campaign, he admits that he didn’t really remember a lot the presidency from his childhood and early teens years. He does, however, recall reading the New York Times article that serves as the framing device for Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, the Off-Broadway solo show in which he currently stars as the titular 34th President of the United States. Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground runs until July 30 at the Theatre at St. Clements.
The article “Our Presidents: A Rating by 75 Historians” was published July 29, 1962, just 18 months after Eisenhower completed his second term. In it, Eisenhower’s job performance is ranked 22nd out of 31 presidents. “I was 15. And we were very excited about Kennedy and the new frontier. The whole page of history had just been turned. I remember reading that article and being very interested in it,” says Rubinstein. “I didn't particularly wonder why or why not anybody was in their particular ratings. I didn't worry about it.”
However, wondering why Eisenhower was ranked 22nd is the very center of Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground. The play, written by Richard Hellesen, shows the former president at his home office in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania just after he’s read the article. Confounded by his position towards the bottom of the “average” group of leaders—not “great” or even “near great”—he takes to his Dictaphone to record a message to his publisher.
What might have been intended as notes for his memoir becomes a sort of defense of his presidency, often referring to the article in jest or consternation about where other former presidents are ranked. It’s hard to say if it is the script (inspired by Eisenhower’s own memoirs, speeches, and letters), Ike’s deeds and policies, or an affable Rubinstein (perhaps a combination of all three)—but a convincing case is made.
It’s clear in his performance, and in speaking with him, that Rubinstein has come a long way since his teen years in his own views of Eisenhower. He has been completely won over by the president. “He was a tremendously good—if that's not too weak of a word—good person, good man. Good Soldier, good president, good politician. He had the well-being of the people he was responsible for at heart. That's what mattered to him,” says Rubinstein.
From his place as a five-star general in World War II, to the president of Columbia University, to the President of the United States, his decisions were motivated by his soldiers, his students, and all citizens—not just his “base,” as Rubinstein points out. “He didn't care about his base, he wanted to help the citizens of the United States, because that was the job description. That's what the President is supposed to do. And he did it with all his heart. And, you know, he made some mistakes that he deeply regrets. But he was a very, very, very good president. And we don't see and hear from a lot of politicians who resemble that approach anymore."
Obviously, politics abound in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, but the play does not pander to a liberal New York audience. There are, though, a few lines that get applause here and there that seem to be speaking to our current political climate. When Eisenhower speaks against Joseph McCarthy or against the America First movement, it sounds as if it could be a critique of today’s Republican party. “It isn’t added in to ring a bell for the audience,” says Rubinstein. “It’s what Ike said back then about the isolationists and the people who were trying to move America towards a more fascist kind of government.”
Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground made its world premiere in Los Angeles at Theatre West in October 2022 with Rubinstein originating the role of Eisenhower. The veteran actor, who made his Broadway debut 50 years ago as the original Pippin in the Stephen Schwartz musical, had been thinking of adding a one-man show to his long list of credits for some time. He notes that some big Broadway stars, like Elaine Stritch, create a show from the stories and songs of their lives, but he adds jokingly that he could never do anything like that because “nobody would want to know about my life.”
Since he’s also a musician, he toyed with the idea of an evening as a famous composer like Cole Porter, but “that just never came about,” he says. “That's a bucket list that I may never fill up,” he thought. But then came Ike.
It has been a rewarding experience for Rubinstein. Doing the play and getting to know the president, learning from him. One of the greatest lessons the actor believes that can be taken from Eisenhower, one that the president himself learned at a young age then carried with him throughout his life; it’s this idea from the “Cadet’s Prayer” at West Point, where Eisenhower began his military career: “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”
Says Rubinstein: “It was never about himself or something he could gain, either in some financial way or in some sort of image or vote attracting way. He chose what he felt was right for the people he served, instead of an easier thing, which would have been wrong, but would have made him look better, or would have gotten him some more votes. And I think that's a legacy that is terribly important.”
Rubinstein, who calls himself “a spotty history student,” has grown to greatly admire Eisenhower. In his own personal presidential ranking, Rubinstein places the Eisenhower fourth, just after Lincoln, Washington, and FDR.
The ranking is a clever device the play uses to get Eisenhower as a character to talk about some of the highlights of his career. However, when we flat-out ask Rubinstein about his, he’s hesitant at first to answer. “Oh, boy. It's such a tough business to make a living in, to pay your bills and to raise children," he remarks. "But it's a wonderful way to make a living because you're doing what you love to do. I feel I wouldn't ever use the word proud, but I feel lucky, and fortunate to have had this life."
After he's prompted, though, he continues at length. Pippin is first on the list. It was the beginning. “In my obit, I imagine that’s going to be the first item mentioned,” he teases. “That’s over 50 years ago and it’s still the first line. Though I don’t intend to die very soon!”
He lists his Tony Award-winning turn in Children of a Lesser God, one of the most meaningful roles in his career, but also one of the most physically and vocally demanding of his life. He mentions a production of David Rabe’s Streamers about the Vietnam War that he did in the 1970s in San Francisco: “I compare it to chamber music, like playing a great, Beethoven quartet or Brahms sonata—just me and five other actors getting together and making that brilliant play come across the footlights. That was an experience that I am so grateful to have gotten to do.”
And he couldn’t wait to get to the theatre every night for his run as Tateh in the original Broadway production of Ragtime. “It was a highlight of my professional life,” he says.
A surprising addition to Rubinstein’s special credits, that he includes immediately after Pippin, is that of film composer: “The other [career highlight] was Sydney Pollack, great film director, letting me write the music and the orchestrations, and conduct the orchestra, for the wonderful Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson. It was the second film I had scored, and that led to a whole second career of mine of scoring movies and television shows, which I did for 30 years.” Redford even liked the Jeremiah Johnson score so much that he hired Rubinstein to score his next film, The Candidate.
And, of course, Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground makes the list. “Maybe it will be the second line of my obit,” says Rubinstein.