David A. Nichols

With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Andrew Jackson — all of whom have been called great by historians — most American presidents have been considered mediocre. Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example.

During his presidency, Eisenhower was often mocked as a "do-nothing president." In an age when wind-up dolls were common toys, a joke making the rounds suggested that if you wind up the Eisenhower doll, it does absolutely nothing for eight years.

That's because Eisenhower delegated authority, a carry-over from his military experience — and he was the hero of World War II, so he didn't need fame and didn't seek it.

But in the 1980s, Fred Greenstein pioneered a revisionist view of Eisenhower, suggesting that he was closer to being great than mediocre. Greenstein's intriguing book "The Hidden Hand Presidency" is an analytical study of Eisenhower's letters and papers that convincingly argued the man was actually a very active president, but usually behind the scenes or under the table.

Since then, Eisenhower's image has been steadily growing among scholars.

In that spirit, historian David A. Nichols has just published "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution," a book that alleges that it was not John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson who deserve the lion's share of the credit for the civil-rights revolution, but Eisenhower, who was always a strong believer in justice across the board.

The result is a book as profound as Greenstein's.

Nichols, a 68-year-old professor emeritus of history and an academic dean at Southwestern College in Kansas, said by phone from Winfield, Kan., that Eisenhower's views on civil rights "were severely denigrated by Chief Justice Earl Warren's memoirs," which were published posthumously.

"Warren ignored his own appointment as chief justice and his own bench of Ike appointees, all of them progressive," said Nichols, "because of the rivalry he had with Eisenhower over the presidency. One of the motives Eisenhower had in appointing Warren (the former governor of California) was to get rid of him as a future competitor for the presidency. Eisenhower was a strategic thinker if there ever was one. As Richard Nixon said, he was 'more devious than people realized."'

Warren was "loquacious" in his criticism of Eisenhower, "so it is evident they had a rift," said Nichols.

The author has not been able to verify the rumor that Eisenhower once said that appointing Warren "was a damn fool mistake." But it is clear, he said, that Eisenhower knew Warren's progressive views on race before he appointed him and was not surprised by his decisions. He said, "I wanted a man who felt the way we do — and a man who would be on the court for a long time."

In his book, Nichols relates the Warren account of Eisenhower allegedly telling him at a 1954 stag dinner that Southerners just wanted to protect their little girls from being "required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes." The story has never been corroborated by anyone else, but it makes Eisenhower appear to be a bigot.

Yet when Nichols did his research, he found that Eisenhower desegregated federally controlled military schools, the District of Columbia and the armed forces, and he sent troops into Little Rock, Ark., to enforce a court order to desegregate the schools. He also favored the landmark civil-rights decision to desegregate schools nationally, a ruling that emanated from Brown v. Board of Education, 1954. "It is not a small thing that Eisenhower desegregated the nation's Capitol — and he accomplished it quickly. In a little over a year, the oppression of blacks in D.C. was gone. That says a lot about his personal convictions. The 'colored' signs were painted over, but there was no press conference to talk about it."

It was confusing to many people that Eisenhower didn't talk much about his belief in civil rights or use "the bully pulpit" to bring people to an understanding of the need for equality. Whereas Truman and Kennedy talked about it a great deal, Eisenhower actually did more.

"Eisenhower," said Nichols, "was restrained in his rhetoric, like other military men. He didn't give a passionate endorsement of the Brown decision — but who did? I searched and searched for such statements from either Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson."

Nichols is convinced that Eisenhower was "much brighter than we give him credit for being, but our political culture is a sound-bite culture. Ike was not a sound-bite man and he knew it. He held 193 (weekly) press conferences, and he was not above playing the befuddled grandfather when he didn't want to talk about something.

"He could be purposely obscure. As he told his press secretary on one occasion, 'If that comes up, Jim, I'll just confuse them."'

Nichols is convinced that Eisenhower made a major contribution to civil rights by appointing "courageous judges" at every level — and they made the path for civil rights easier.

Eisenhower, said Nichols, "had a hot temper, and in his rants he would swear like the soldier he was. His use of profanity was extraordinary. Yet in his public persona there was none of that. He was also careful never to criticize anyone in public. There were lots of layers to Eisenhower's complex personality."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com