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Will Obama be like Ike?

June 12, 2008|David A. Nichols | David A. Nichols is the author of "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution."

After Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton holed up in Sen. Dianne Feinstein's living room last week for a private tete-a-tete, speculation mushroomed as to what Obama might be offering his former rival. Pundits cited all the possibilities: the vice presidency, a spot in the Cabinet, Senate majority leader and -- yes -- appointment to the Supreme Court.

Is it possible that Obama might adopt Dwight Eisenhower's 1952 strategy for dealing with a contentious political rival? California Gov. Earl Warren had run for president three times and saw himself in line for the Republican presidential nomination in '52, but the war hero of Europe came home and derailed his plans.

Myths abound concerning the Eisenhower-Warren relationship, including the erroneous story that Ike used an appointment to the court to repay Warren for support at the Republican convention, where he didn't have a majority of delegates secured. In fact, Warren didn't release his delegates until after the contest was over.

But after his election in November, Eisenhower strode into Herbert Brownell's room at the Commodore Hotel in New York, where the future attorney general was working on Cabinet appointments. According to Brownell, Ike announced, "I want Gov. Warren to know that we consider him a part of the Eisenhower team." Did he want Warren in the Cabinet? No, said the president-elect, "I think he'd be a good man on the Supreme Court."

Eisenhower placed the call himself. "Governor," Warren recalled Eisenhower saying, "I want you to know that I intend to offer you the first vacancy on the Supreme Court." Eisenhower confirmed the call in his memoirs but claimed that he was only "considering the possibility." But the proof of this secret deal lies in the fact that when Chief Justice Fred Vinson died the following September, Eisenhower nominated Warren for the job.

Ike had made an extraordinary promise. There was no court vacancy, nor was one anticipated. Eisenhower essentially mortgaged one of the most significant appointments a president makes. Eisenhower was not an impulsive man; he was a planner by temperament and training. Why then make this promise to Warren?

The circumstantial evidence suggests that Eisenhower was already thinking about running for a second term in 1956. Warren, one of the Republican Party's most ambitious politicians, would be less likely to re-emerge as a rival if he were safely planted in a nonpartisan position on the Supreme Court.

Warren accepted the nomination, and the Warren court produced groundbreaking decisions expanding civil rights, free speech, privacy rights and the separation of church and state.

But Warren's relationship with the man who had nominated him became strained. In 1955, when Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, rumors were rampant that Warren might run for president if Eisenhower didn't. Ike believed the chief justice was fueling the speculation. When reporters pressed the president on a possible Warren candidacy, Eisenhower pointedly cited how he had resigned from the Army to become a presidential candidate and suggested that should Warren want to run, he should resign from the court.

Eisenhower's landslide victory in 1956 was the death knell for Warren's presidential ambitions. But the chief justice, bitter in his old age, got his revenge. His memoirs, published after his and Eisenhower's deaths, trashed the president's reputation, particularly on civil rights and desegregation. For decades, historians accepted Warren's conclusions, neglecting to recognize how Ike himself desegregated schools on military bases and sent troops to Little Rock to enforce the Brown ruling. The conflict between the two men wasn't just rooted in civil rights but their rival presidential ambitions.

Putting Warren on the Supreme Court changed America. Clinton clearly has the potential to become a powerful justice. If a President Obama nominated her, another disappointed presidential candidate might make her own historic impact on the high court. And maybe Obama could worry a little less about 2012.

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