Two midcentury giants clash behind the scenes over civil liberties.
How much can a political leader do to advance necessary social change in the face of entrenched resistance without provoking a challenge to the legitimacy of governmental institutions? Disagreement on this point soured the relations between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Earl Warren, both hugely popular public figures. In September 1953, Eisenhower appointed Warren, a three-term governor of California with no judicial experience, as chief justice of the United States. Warren went on to forge a surprisingly liberal legacy, to Eisenhower's chagrin. While the Warren-led court broke new constitutional ground in many areas, former New York Law School dean Simon (FDR and Chief Justice Hughes: The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal, 2012, etc.) focuses primarily on judicial responses to the nascent civil rights movement and to the political hysteria of McCarthyism. Warren coaxed a unanimous opinion from a conservative court in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring "separate but equal" public schools unconstitutional. The ruling brought him into conflict with Eisenhower, who never endorsed it, in part because he entertained serious practical concerns about the enforceability of court orders desegregating schools in rabidly hostile parts of the South. On national security grounds, Eisenhower, along with much of the public, also privately rejected court decisions defeating government efforts to punish suspected communists. While respecting Eisenhower's viewpoint, the author generally sides with Warren in faulting the president's failure to provide clearer moral leadership in the civil rights struggle or to stand up to the bullying McCarthy. Simon frames these conflicts within a robust, detailed narrative, clearly presenting the political and cultural milieu within which these two principled pragmatists worked. The author’s presentation of discussions among the court justices about the legal issues at stake is particularly illuminating.
A well-written, salutary illustration of the principle that honorable men can disagree about the pace and the means of effecting social change.