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Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian
W. W. Norton, $29.95 (cloth)
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the subject of a briskly readable and instructive new biography, would probably have taken issue with its title. He did not see himself as a chronicler of empire or as an agent of imperial ambition. The cause to which he devoted his professional life was the promotion of U.S. liberalism, in his view “the vital center” of U.S. politics.
As a prodigiously gifted historian, Schlesinger celebrated the achievements of those he deemed liberalism’s greatest champions, notably Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the martyred Kennedy brothers. As a skillful polemicist, he inveighed against those he saw as enemies of liberalism, whether on the communist left or the Republican right. As a Democratic operative, he worked behind the scenes, counseling office seekers of a liberal persuasion and drafting speeches for candidates he deemed likely to advance the cause (and perhaps his own fortunes).
Arthur Schlesinger lived a rich and consequential life, and had fun along the way. He died just a decade ago at the ripe old age of eighty-nine. Yet as this account makes abundantly clear, Schlesinger comes to us from an altogether different time, far removed from our own in terms of attitudes, aspirations, and fears. Indeed, Donald Trump’s elevation to the office once occupied by Schlesinger’s heroes signifies the repudiation of all that Schlesinger, as scholar and public intellectual, held dear.
Donald Trump’s elevation to the office once occupied by Schlesinger’s heroes signifies the repudiation of all that Schlesinger held dear.
The Schlesinger depicted by Richard Aldous, a professor of history and literature at Bard College, resembles Trump in just one respect: each was born into privilege and each demonstrated a knack for translating privilege into opportunities for personal advancement. But the privileges granted to Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, born on October 15, 1917, had less to do with money than with his father’s prominence as a renowned historian.
A distinguished member of the Harvard faculty, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., took it for granted that his son would follow in his footsteps and spared no effort toward that end. It was therefore all but inevitable that “Young Arthur,” as he was known among family friends in Cambridge, should attend the university where his father taught, should concentrate in U.S. history, and should be mentored by his father’s accommodating colleagues. In 1938 he graduated from Harvard with unusual scholarly promise and, to quote Aldous, a “highhanded sense of entitlement,” both very much in evidence. Young Arthur had by then jettisoned Bancroft, his mother’s family name, in favor of Meier, thereby becoming Schlesinger, Jr.
While Schlesinger was spending a postgraduate year at Cambridge University, his undergraduate thesis, a biography of the idiosyncratic scholar-activist Orestes Brownson, appeared in print with none other than the august Henry Steele Commager providing an effusive review in The New York Times. Meanwhile, back home, his father was pulling the necessary strings to secure his son’s three-year appointment with Harvard’s Society of Fellows. By 1940 Arthur seemed a made man.
Soon enough, however, complications slowed his upward trajectory. They came in two forms: family and war. In August 1940 Schlesinger married Marian Cannon, daughter of another Harvard professor. The union was an ill-fated one. For Arthur the responsibilities of being a husband and, soon enough, a father became a source of annoyance and consternation. Then in December 1941, the United States entered World War II, with Harvard Yard instantly transformed from the center of Schlesinger’s universe into a backwater. Unless tied to the war effort, scholarly pursuits now seemed superfluous and even self-indulgent.
Intent on being part of the action but medically disqualified from military service, Schlesinger was soon off to Washington. There he contributed to the war effort first by producing government propaganda for the United States Office of War Information and then by editing a classified weekly journal for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Neither assignment proved rewarding. In the summer of 1944, he wangled an overseas posting with the OSS. But rather than espionage and skullduggery, his labors in London and subsequently in liberated Paris involved pushing paper. Snobbish and impatient with bosses he considered his intellectual inferiors, he found the experience suffocating.
The end of the war brought release and a sudden restoration of Schlesinger's fortunes. In October 1945 his second book, written during his abbreviated term as a Harvard fellow, appeared. The Age of Jackson proved to be a monumental success, spending twenty-five weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and, with his father’s help behind the scenes, winning the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for history. Soon enough Schlesinger was contributing essays to Fortune, Life, and The New York Times Magazine, hobnobbing with members of Washington DC’s “Georgetown set,” and collaborating with Eleanor Roosevelt, Reinhold Niebuhr, and other luminaries to found the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), which became in short order the leading voice of Cold War liberalism. With his father running interference, he also accepted a tenured appointment to Harvard’s Department of History, despite not having a Ph.D.
Schlesinger's liberalism was a matter of style. It implied intellect, wit, and savoir faire, qualities he found in abundance in John F. Kennedy.
His time now divided between teaching, scholarship, journalism, and politics—with sporadic attention to family—Schlesinger’s life became dizzyingly busy. He embarked on an ambitious multi-volume history of the “Age of Roosevelt,” envisioned as his life’s work, but destined never to be finished. At regular intervals he penned attention-grabbing polemics such as The Vital Center (1949), which depicted New Deal-style liberalism as the only legitimate alternative to right-wing or left-wing totalitarianism, and The General and the President (1951), written with Richard Rovere, which castigated Douglas MacArthur as a threat to the Constitution.
Schlesinger also “developed a near addiction to the narcotic of political battle,” writes Aldous. In 1952 and again in 1956, he hitched his wagon to Adlai Stevenson’s ambivalent star, writing speeches during each of Stevenson’s two presidential campaigns and offering advice to a candidate who remained unsure as to whether he really wanted the top job or not. Then in 1960 he fell for the seductive charms of a candidate who entertained none of Stevenson’s ambivalence.
John F. Kennedy’s liberal bona fides were dubious at best. To be fair, by this time Schlesinger’s own conception of liberalism was not especially easy to define. Rather than an ideology or set of fixed principles, his liberalism was more akin to an attitude or temperament. For Schlesinger flexibility, pragmatism, and the vigorous exercise of state power, especially by the chief executive, were among liberalism’s defining attributes. To be a liberal was to revere the New Deal and to hold Big Business and communism in equal contempt. Notwithstanding Schlesinger’s friendship with and enduring admiration for Niebuhr, he was uninterested in religion and oblivious to transcendence. Yet his liberalism was also a matter of style. It implied intellect, wit, and savoir faire, qualities not found in loathsome politicians like Joseph McCarthy or Richard Nixon or among the dour figures presiding over the Soviet Politburo.
Of course Kennedy had style to spare. That, combined with the fact that Nixon was the GOP presidential nominee in 1960, enabled Schlesinger to climb aboard the Kennedy bandwagon without any qualms of conscience. When the president-elect subsequently invited Schlesinger to join the “action intellectuals” being recruited to work in the White House, he jumped at the chance and took leave from Harvard, as it turned out, for good.
Schlesinger was to serve as Special Assistant to the President. No one had more than a murky understanding of what that title was meant to entail. Aldous describes Schlesinger’s status as that of a “gadfly.” Perhaps kibitzer works as well. Schlesinger had no staff and no fixed responsibilities. Although his office was in the déclassé East Wing, he did enjoy occasional access to the Oval Office. He served as a sort of liaison to Ambassador Stevenson at the United Nations and pitched in on some of the First Lady’s projects. With or without invitation, he dashed off memos advising Kennedy on sundry matters. Yet on critical issues such as Cuba, Vietnam, and relations with the Soviet Union, Schlesinger was “at best distant, at worst completely out of the loop.” He was by no means a central player.
His actual function—and the reason Kennedy wanted him around in the first place—was to serve as a sort of court historian in waiting. Between the president and his special assistant, writes Aldous, there was an “implicit understanding” that Schlesinger’s real work would begin once JFK left the White House. His long-term assignment was to “establish the Age of Kennedy as a worthy successor to the Age of Roosevelt.”
Schlesinger suffered from the inverse of writer’s block. Put him in front of a typewriter and words, sentences, and whole paragraphs gushed forth.
When Kennedy’s assassination brought his presidency to a premature end, Schlesinger went immediately to work to secure his legacy. Throughout his long career, Schlesinger suffered from the inverse of writer’s block. Put him in front of a typewriter and words, sentences, and whole paragraphs gushed forth: graceful, abundant, and laced with exquisitely apposite quotations from a wide array of sources.
In just over a year, he crafted a massive memoir-history of the Kennedy administration that appeared in 1965 under the title of A Thousand Days. It was a bravura performance, delivering precisely what Kennedy himself and the Kennedy family had counted on Schlesinger to produce.
Upon publication the thousand-plus page tome rocketed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. It won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Above all it imparted to the now-emerging legend of Camelot a historian’s imprimatur. A grateful Jacqueline Kennedy sent Schlesinger a congratulatory note comparing him to Plutarch and Thucydides.
Kennedy, Schlesinger wrote, had “reestablished the republic as the first generation of our leaders saw it—young, brave, civilized, rational, gay, tough, questing, [and] exultant.” He had “transformed the American spirit,” thereby “wiping away the world’s impression of an old nation of old men, weary, played out, fearful of ideas, change, and the future.” All this over the course of a presidency that had lasted less than three years.
In reality Schlesinger’s labors had yielded something other than a history. A Thousand Days was more akin to an epic poem in prose form. Schlesinger depicted JFK as more than a mere mortal and his assassination as something more than a politically motivated murder—in his telling it was an incomparable historical tragedy affecting all of humankind. That so many Americans still accept Schlesinger’s rendering as true testifies to his extraordinary artistry, which concealed blemishes, erased shadows, and cast its subject in a soft golden glow.
Intent on returning to his Roosevelt project, Schlesinger accepted a position with the City University of New York—the teaching duties were light, the amenities generous—and moved to Manhattan. Newly divorced and something of a celebrity in his own right, Schlesinger soon emerged as a man about town. All was not frivolity, however. With the Vietnam War now in full swing, he dashed off a blistering critique of Lyndon Johnson’s policy, titled The Bitter Heritage (1967), insisting that had Kennedy lived he would have avoided war. At the same time, as a leading figure of the liberal Democratic establishment, Schlesinger himself came in for sharp criticism from the New Left. In some quarters, liberal had become an epithet. After all, the so-called “best and brightest” who had presided over America’s plunge into Vietnam in the first place had possessed impeccably liberal credentials.
That so many Americans still accept Schlesinger’s rendering of JFK as true testifies to his extraordinary artistry, which erased shadows and cast its subject in a soft golden glow.
Unsurprisingly, as both Kennedy family loyalist and sharp critic of Johnson, Schlesinger threw himself into Robert Kennedy’s abbreviated 1968 presidential campaign. Although Kennedy’s assassination ended Schlesinger’s own behind-the-scenes political career, it created a further opportunity to be of service to the Kennedy family. Just a month after her husband’s murder, Ethel Kennedy approached Schlesinger about writing his biography. After only the briefest hesitation, he accepted the invitation.
In this instance, however, the project took far longer to complete than expected. Distractions intervened. One was Schlesinger’s marriage to the much younger, much taller, and (in comparison with the nerdy-looking Arthur) more glamorous Alexandra Emmet. Starting a new family while in his fifties, he became a devoted father. A second distraction came in the form of Schlesinger’s old nemesis Richard Nixon, now occupying the White House. Nixon inspired Schlesinger to rethink his enthusiasm for an activist chief executive in the mold of FDR. His anti-Nixon brief found expression in his 1973 book The Imperial Presidency.
When Robert Kennedy and His Times finally appeared in 1978, it pleased Kennedy acolytes but struck others as overly long and uncritical. In truth Schlesinger now found himself increasingly out of step with the prevailing political and cultural climate. Although he kept writing, he increasingly came across as something of crank. The Disuniting of America, his 1991 attack on multiculturalism and what he called “the cult of ethnicity,” offers a good illustration.
In his later years he retained his ability to provoke. Yet his views now seemed retrograde, a throwback to another time. After a long period of physical decline during which he demonstrated a continuing zest for life, Schlesinger died abruptly of a heart attack in February 2007.
Elegant in expression, his pen ever at the ready to serve causes in which he believed, Schlesinger was undoubtedly “one of the finest narrative historians America has ever produced,” as Aldous concludes. Yet with very rare exceptions, historians themselves are a disposable commodity, their work destined to be superseded or simply forgotten. On the very first page of Orestes Brownson (1939), the first of his many books, Schlesinger himself had written, “The measure of what is historically important is set by the generation that writes the history, not by the one that makes it.” Yet each generation in turn claims the prerogative to decide what qualifies as historically important, almost inevitably rendering obsolete the judgments of prior generations. By the time of Schlesinger’s own death, the writing of history had long since passed to a generation other than his own.
Yet to read this account is to appreciate that Schlesinger’s America, shaped by the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, has also vanished. And with it so too has Schlesinger’s brand of liberalism. In the era of Donald Trump a seemingly unbridgeable divide exists where the “vital center” once stood. You don’t have to be a liberal to mourn all that has been lost as a consequence.
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