Where Have You Gone, Arthur Schlesinger?

Review: 'Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian' by Richard Aldous

Historian Arthur Schlesinger / Getty Images

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wanted to matter. All that he did, good and bad, and all that he means for us now, looking back, follows from that strange ache deep in his psyche. It was not enough to be what he was: a Harvard historian and the son of a Harvard historian. It was not enough to be intelligent and well read. It was not enough to contemplate history. The goal, the need in him, was to influence events as they unfolded.

Nietzsche had wanted to philosophize with a hammer, and two or three generations later, Schlesinger wanted to historicize with a hammer—in a genteel way, perhaps, as befit his patrician upbringing, but nonetheless he longed to beat the scrap metal of the past into a shiny new armor with which to dress the politics of the present. What he seemed not to have considered is how soon that armor would start to rust. And as it flaked away, so did Schlesinger's fame. One of the most visible public intellectuals in America from the 1950s through the 1970s, he was fading from view long before his death in 2007 at age 89.

Richard Aldous, a professor of history at Bard College, recently published Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian, and the reception of the biography has been generally good—as it ought to be, given the book's rapid prose, solid documentation, and close reading of Schlesinger's voluminous writings. But the reviews thus far have generally turned from mild praise for the biographer to mild disparagement of his subject, the book seeming to serve mostly as an excuse to look back on what many, both left and right, have decided is the sinister effect of the "vital center" of liberalism that Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. sought to define through his historical writing and extend through his political action.

And the reviewers are right to at least this extent: Who now reads a book by the man? Who now holds any of his ideas? The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was his contemporary among the nation's public intellectuals, joining with Schlesinger and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith to help found the once powerful liberal political organization, Americans for Democratic Action. But where Niebuhr—a man much less concerned with direct political influence—still has his thoughts on Christian realism revived every few years, Schlesinger has only slipped further away.

When Schlesinger was born in 1917, his father, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., was determined to provide for his son—sending him to Phillips Exeter and Harvard and guiding him through a postgraduate year in England and then appointment to Harvard's Society of Fellows. The young historian was endowed, in Aldous's words, with a "highhanded sense of entitlement," and he came by his entitlement honestly enough: Just to be sure the young man received a proper start, his father's friend, Henry Steele Commager, took the time to write a glowing review for the New York Times of Schlesinger's first book, an account of the eccentric 19th-century American intellectual Orestes Brownson.

The Second World War awakened new energies in the young scholar. Turned down for medical reasons when he applied for active service, he moved to Washington to work for the Office of War Information and then the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA, with which he maintained an association for many years). Unhappy with the desk work, envious of the activity of someone like Allen Dulles, he did not feel he had the good war of many of his contemporaries.

That feeling drove him into politics. In 1945 he published The Age of Jackson, a bestseller that brought him his first Pulitzer Prize (after a little behind-the-curtain maneuvering by his father). He wrote for magazines, was lionized in Washington, and worked through Americans for Democratic Action to become one of the steady voices of liberal anticommunism. His father made sure he had, as well, a Harvard professorship to keep up his academic credentials.

He began his two volumes on The Age of Roosevelt, posing the New Deal as a refounding of the American republic, and he published The Vital Center in 1949 as the central statement of a dominant American liberalism that had found a national consensus after the New Deal as the world’s great alternative to communist totalitarianism on the radical left and fascist totalitarianism on the radical right.

But his writing was mostly in service to his politics, and he "developed a near addiction to the narcotic of political battle," as Aldous puts it. In 1952 and 1956, he wrote speeches and campaigned for Adlai Stevenson (abandoning his early supporter Averell Harriman), and in 1960 he switched to John F. Kennedy (abandoning his next supporter, Stevenson).

Schlesinger left for Washington in 1961 to become "special assistant" to the president. He thought that meant he would be a speechwriter and policy adviser, maintaining New Deal liberalism in an administration of which Eleanor Roosevelt and the remaining New Dealers were suspicious. But he was soon shunted into a role as court historian and hanger-on—a role he accepted fully after Kennedy's assassination. His account of the administration, the bestselling A Thousand Days, was clearly a hagiography and defense of Kennedy's policies. But it also had the subtext the family wanted, raising the stature of Robert Kennedy in preparation for his own presidential run. (His 1978 Robert Kennedy and His Times was his tribute to that project and remains an often beautiful if uncritical account of the man cut down by an assassin in 1968).

Schlesinger's attack on Nixon, The Imperial Presidency, appeared in 1973. It was a determinedly partisan book—he found Nixon distasteful decades before—and yet it also helped generate discussion about the ascendancy of the executive branch of government over the congressional, a shared national discussion not generated by the partisan books that appeared during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.

Still, the 1970s saw the beginning of his fading from public awareness. His close association with the Kennedys won him few fans among President Carter's team. The New Left, gradually coming to power in the Democratic party after McGovern's 1972 campaign, found his liberalism an embarrassing artifact of what they thought of as discredited anticommunism. The liberal stalwart Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. increasingly came to seem an old fogey—and even one of the conservatives holding the Democratic party back. The Clintons reached out to him only after he had attacked Bill Clinton for mistaking political triangulation for a principled vision of the vital center.

Settling in at an endowed chair at City University in New York, he remarried and continued his pouring out of books and essays, each less noticed than the last. The Disuniting of America, his 1991 dismissal of multiculturalism and "the cult of ethnicity" as a foundation for liberal politics, was taken as an occasion by several reviewers to dismiss his entire career in the Democratic party as an effort to disguise as liberal what was essentially conservative. Even the subtitle of Richard Aldous's biography—labeling Schlesinger "The Imperial Historian"—echoes the contemporary left's impatience with his old-fashioned ideas of liberalism.

The fall of Soviet communism may be one of the main causes of Schlesinger's declining reputation. The Cold War was, in its way, a dam that held back more radical elements of the American left from washing over the Democrats. The vital center, as an idea, required the Soviets. And once they were gone, what was left of the territory Schlesinger had marked out for the party? What was left of a liberal centrism?

Schlesinger leaves us with an irony, of course, but there it is: The man hungriest to matter among his intellectual contemporaries is the man who now seems to matter least. His was a name to conjure with, once upon a time, and we seem these days to have forgotten the spell.