This is the centenary of the birth of Dwight David Eisenhower, and it cannot be said that the event has gone unnoticed. In op-ed columns and in seminars, Ike has been remembered and, in some cases, pronounced great -- among the top 10 presidents according to one group of scholars. I like Ike as much as anyone does (and much more than I once did). But to judge Ike as great accepts him the way he accepted America: Blacks didn't matter much.
In the context of his time, Ike could hardly be called a bigot. After all, when he became president in 1953 public facilities in the South and elsewhere were legally segregated by race. Here is a snapshot of the times: The newlyweds, Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King had to spend their wedding night in a funeral parlor. On the road in those days, blacks could not find a decent place to stay.
But still, the plain fact is that Eisenhower was an indifferent, lethargic president when it came to civil rights. He never accommodated himself to the Supreme Court's 1954 decision that school segregation was unconstitutional. If anything, he seemed to sympathize much more with whites who were trying to keep their schools segregated than with blacks who wanted nothing more than a better education. Ike criticized "extremists" on both sides, as if racism and equality were somehow the same. If such thinking is somewhat short of racist, it also has to be somewhat short of "great."
Scholars may argue about whether Eisenhower's record on civil rights was appalling or just mediocre. Stephen E. Ambrose, probably the most influential of Eisenhower's biographers, had this to say about his subject: "On one of the great moral issues of the day, the struggle to eliminate racial segregation from American life, he failed to speak out... . This did incalculable harm to the civil rights crusade and to America's image."
But having said that, Ambrose then deducts few to no demerits from this performance. Other scholars and essayists seem to have taken their cue from Ambrose. They dutifully acknowledge Ike's shortcomings when it comes to race and then sort of shrug it all off. Nothing Ike did when it came to civil rights -- and nothing is pretty much what he did -- stops Ambrose from calling him "a great and good man." In some respects, who could argue? But if you were a black person trying to get into an all-white (and better) school, your perspective -- and assessment -- might be different.
What is greatness? It depends, I suppose, on what you think is important. In a recent essay, Susan Eisenhower praised her grandfather for certain achievements, some of them (in my view) mundane. Among them was balancing the budget three times (yawn), supporting European unity and, of course, warning about the domestic effects of the Cold War arms buildup -- no trivial matter that. I would add another: No one ever doubted Ike's integrity, either personal or political. His rank was general. His status was gentleman.
But to ignore Ike on race is to do pretty much what Ike himself did -- down to confessing an ignorance (and, therefore, a disinterest) in his own administration's civil rights bill -- one reason it failed. It seems to me that a president who insisted racial segregation was only a legal and not a moral issue ("There are adequate legal means of determining all these factors") and who refused to invoke his enormous moral stature on the side of civil rights has compromised his claim to greatness. After all, we're not talking about the Law of the Seas Treaty here, but race: America's seemingly endless migraine headache.
Ike's performance on the problems of race is hardly the entirety of his presidency. In other areas, he may well have been the "great and good man" Ambrose calls him -- certainly wiser and more calculating then he appeared at the time. (He did, however, bequeath the nation Richard Nixon and fail to confront Sen. Joseph McCarthy.) And still, after all these years, Eisenhower remains America's beloved Ike -- a buoyant and humane man encircled by a captivating grin. I, for one, was lucky to have met him. It was an unforgettable experience. But most of the issues Ike faced -- everything from the Cold War to the fight against polio -- are truly history. The one issue he fervently ducked is with us still -- as fresh as President Bush's recent veto of the civil rights act or the appalling condition of the black underclass. Great presidents meet -- don't duck -- great moral challenges. Let's reconsider.