The now nearly constant presidential rankings are a part of politics as entertainment, a 24-hour news cycle of history. We nearly engage in our own version of this, even if we decry it. And one way to do it is to obsess about the personality of presidents, constantly ranking and comparing them, a process largely framed by personality and our preference for choices that reflect our personal political preferences rather than a contextualized understanding of the individual.
That’s what I thought when I read this excerpt from a new book on Eisenhower. This is a well-known story among historians but maybe not so much by the general public.
At a White House stag dinner in February 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower shocked the new chief justice of the United States. Earl Warren was Eisenhower’s first appointment to the Supreme Court and had been sworn in just four months earlier. Only two months into his tenure, Warren had presided over oral arguments in the blockbuster school-segregation case Brown v. Board of Education. As of the dinner, the case was still under advisement. Yet Eisenhower seated Warren near one of the attorneys who had argued the case for the southern states, John W. Davis, and went out of his way to praise Davis as a great man. That alone would have made for an awkward evening. What happened next made it fateful. Over coffee, Eisenhower took Warren by the arm and asked him to consider the perspective of white parents in the Deep South. “These are not bad people,” the president said. “All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big black bucks.”
It was an appalling moment. Here was the president leaning on the chief justice about a pending case while using the racist terms of an overseer. Several of Eisenhower’s admirers have attempted to downplay the encounter, but reports confirm that he used racially charged language in private. The incident left such an impression that Warren recounted it in his memoirs some 20 years later. Ever decorous, he sanitized the slur from “black bucks” to “overgrown Negroes,” but in his biography, Super Chief, Bernard Schwartz, one of Warren’s confidants, recorded the actual phrase in all its rotten vinegar. Warren had been a prosecutor and a governor, and was no choirboy; he had heard bigoted language before. Yet as the chief justice, he embodied the impartiality of the entire federal judiciary. He was a man who believed in fairness and dignity. The president’s words had shaken him.
If the stag dinner upended relations between Warren and Eisenhower, the Brown decision three months later ruptured those relations permanently. The Court decided the case on May 17, 1954, declaring that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. It was the seminal Supreme Court decision of the 20th century, and one of the most important cases in the nation’s history. But Eisenhower pointedly refused to endorse it. Instead he delivered this bafflingly terse answer to a reporter’s question: “The Supreme Court has spoken, and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional process in the country. And I will obey.” There endeth the statement. Eisenhower offered no comment in support of racial equality, no expression of solidarity with African Americans, and no sign of agreement with the Court’s opinion.
When the Court ruled on the remedies phase of Brown in 1955, a decision known as Brown II, the president was even less voluble. He said nothing about the Court’s delegation of supervisory duties to the district courts, or its famous directive that school districts should begin to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” The following year, Eisenhower personally rewrote the Republican platform to read that the party “accepts” the original Brown decision, rather than “concurs” with it. An enormously popular president on the cusp of a nation-breaking social revolution was refusing to get in the game. In his outstanding new biography, The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, William I. Hitchcock quotes the only African American on Eisenhower’s executive staff, E. Frederic Morrow, who reported with despair the broad sentiment that the administration “has completely abandoned the Negro in the South.” One scholar has called Eisenhower’s response to Brown “morally obtuse.” Hitchcock writes that while the president “did not obstruct progress on civil rights,” he “refused to lead,” proceeding with “caution and wariness.” Warren resented this for the rest of his life. The Court, it seemed, was on its own.
We can say that Eisenhower was a man of his time. And he was. Raised in Kansas, Eisenhower was born in Texas and his family were Texans through and through. But he didn’t have to say these things. They weren’t inevitable. Earl Warren is one example of why they weren’t. There were plenty of whites that were closer to Warren than Eisenhower. None of this is to say that Eisenhower was a terrible president per se. But today, even liberals rate him highly because they compare him to George W. Bush or Donald Trump. The problem is the same when liberals say that even Reagan wouldn’t fit into today’s Republican Party. Of course he would have. So would Eisenhower. The difference is that these earlier times were more liberal. The political context of the time was drastically different than it is. Eisenhower was not the radical right-winger on government spending that Bob Taft would have preferred, but he moved the nation significantly to the right. Many of his Cabinet appointees–John Foster Dulles, Douglas McKay, Ezra Taft Benson–were absolute monsters who enacted terrible, horrible, no good policies.
When you say you like Eisenhower, a lot of what you are saying is that you would have preferred to live in the 1950s, even if you are doing that unconsciously and only mean it in terms of the issues you are considering. And that’s fine, but it would be nice if we could work harder to place how we think about the past in terms of the broader context of the time and not focus on personalities and individuals as what defines an era.