“We have entered a period of nostalgia and reaction. We want the past back though we have no idea what it was.”
Marilynn Robinson, The Death of Adam
“I feel that I should have spent much more time writing history and less time writing op-eds or speeches for candidates.”
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. was a fine, at times magnificent, historian—but of a kind now almost extinct.
I say “almost extinct” because he believed—certainly in his heart, probably no less in his genes—in the uplifting idea of American Progress as not just material but as moral, and in the essential role of Great Leaders (albeit most of them white Christian men) to make sure that such Progress would never end. In short, he had proudly inherited Protestant America’s once-sacred foundational story, of this as the Promised Land, us as its Chosen People, and all of us duty-bound to evangelize those truths to the world, whether the world liked it or not. Over a 60-year career, Schlesinger relentlessly put that story to work, amplified it, argued for it, defended it. Though his faith in that story fluctuated with the political seasons, he kept his doubts private for most of his life, recording them only in his diary. To the public, he was a modern-day apostle, bow-tied and bespectacled, the very model of a “Harvard professor” preaching his faith in an America Redeemed that never wavered.
Reading Richard Aldous’s splendid new biography of Schlesinger reminded me that today, Arthur’s narrative—and the academic historians who might use it—is hard to find. The American history taught on most campuses now is emphatically multicultural—and frequently told “from the bottom up” through stories of the enslaved, the persecuted, the dispossessed and denied, or those whom America too long ignored or forgot—and definitely not the powerful white males who served as the great anchors and engines of history in Schlesinger’s work.
For this and other reasons I’ll explore, among the broad political left, despite many values he shared with them, Schlesinger gradually became more a target than an honored ancestor. Part of the reason was a new generation’s rejection of what it sneered was White Male History. But Schlesinger also had a longer record of clashing with the left over contemporary political issues as well. He had first jumped into these ideological fistfights in the late 1940s by authoring articles of surprising pugnacity, directed at anyone who in any way cooperated or inclined to support a significant part of the American left, not just Communist Party members. “Opponents argued that Schlesinger’s critique was too strident,” Aldous tells us. “There was a world of difference between (his politics) and what turned into McCarthyism; the question became whether they fed the same appetites.,” The tone of those early articles and the force with which he asserted himself would recur throughout his career, sometimes aimed right, sometimes left.
By the Nixon era, Christopher Lasch was chastising Arthur’s sort of Cold War liberalism because it “was naive about progress, had no sense of ‘limits’,,, and eventually degenerated into a snotty disdain toward ordinary people.” His portrayal of the Kennedy Administration in A Thousand Days, based in part on his experience as a Kennedy aide, came in for especially harsh criticism. Christopher Hitchens, as one among many, lambasted Schlesinger for having given over, in his Kennedy books, “his dignity as a historian to the requirements of the courtier and even the apologist.”
Meanwhile, conservatives had largely ignored Schlesinger as a historian, instead focusing on rebutting his unashamedly partisan support for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and his equally unashamed attacks on Republicans politicians like Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater—and, two decades later, Ronald Reagan. Diminutive, slight, owlish in appearance, Arthur had always been something of a nerd—and knew it—so these verbal fisticuffs were his adult opportunity to win a brawl after so many years losing on the playground.
For those too young to have seen or read Arthur at his prime, there are still good reasons to read him, as Aldous’s biography shows. One is simply the opportunity it provides us to revisit and reflect on his work, his era, and his vision of an America governed by liberal values at a time when America was shifting from a continental power to a global one.
Another is the sheer pleasure. Hitchens, after filleting Schlesinger for his “court histories” about the Kennedys, pivoted in the same essay to praise Schlesinger’s abilities as a writer who was “disconcertingly good . . . [and] extremely illuminating” with an exacting “eye for the telling detail and encapsulating anecdote.”
Aldous admires his style, but also a good deal more. He deftly summarizes how Schlesinger thought about the past and to what purpose, by quoting him at his 80th birthday party in 1997. “We are prisoners of our own time and our own experiences,” he told the audience. “New time bring new contexts and new perspectives—and new histories.” Then borrowing a line of Oscar Wilde’s, he concluded, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”
Contemporary criticism of Schlesinger and his sort of history-writing reflects, in many ways, the failed attempts by subsequent historians to craft a consensus rewrite that would somehow be “better” than the kind of Progress that Arthur celebrated. How to define that “better” has proved elusive.
A good many progressive historians—as well as many in the broader progressive community—nowadays approach American history not so much seeking the heroic as proffering indictments that focus on the horrors and tragedies of racial and gender discrimination, ever-harsher economic inequality, endless predation by multinational giants, a heedlessly Westernizing “globalization,” a gargantuan worldwide assault on nature, and the dysfunctional pseudo-democratic politics—so hyper-partisan, so enslaved to plutocracy, and so confected of alt-realities—that has given D…..d T….p the presidency. To the degree these horrors do “represent” our nation’s history, many younger progressives have settled for sneering or angrily shaking their fists at our many incontestable wrongs. “Progress”—in Schlesinger’s old-fashioned uplifting sense—is gone from these histories as a constructive force able to advance moral, as well as material, well-being.
That’s what make Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian so valuable right now. It allows us to weigh where we have come from as a nation, and how we have come to this once-unimaginable era. Reading it underscores for us our need to craft our own usable stories that point upward and forward rather than settling for our defensive crouch. And because this book is about Schlesinger rather than by him, we’re shown the animating myths he propagated for liberals of his generation, where they came from, how he meant for them to work, how in retrospect they accorded with his own era, why they seem to have been lost, and what caused that loss. Most importantly, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian lets us (those of us who are ready, at least) begin trying to imagine new stories, new myths to tell ourselves who we are as a people and where we are going.
In helping us think about the stories we need, Aldous is especially good at unpacking Schlesinger’s core assumptions and structures of thought beneath his stories. He lets us see why biography was Arthur’s principal form of narration and how his carefully chosen subjects—Andrew Jackson, FDR, JFK, Robert Kennedy—in one way or another let him meditate on The March of Progress across the American landscape. Schlesinger had acquired those views from his farther, Arthur Sr., who was also a Harvard historian, acclaimed in his day. But Schlesinger Jr. was above all a “Roosevelt historian,” by which I mean not just a chronicler of the New Deal, but a believer in its values and programs. In this, he wasn’t at all unusual in his generation; what stands out now is how he used history to connect Roosevelt to Jackson, and then Kennedy to Roosevelt. He wanted to persuade his readers to embrace New Deal values and to see that it was part of a longer moral history that wove back to Jackson (and Lincoln) and lives on in our own day, from Kennedy in the 1960s to Obama today.
Biography isn’t often considered to be of the highest form for most academic historians, but Schlesinger understood its broader potential impact (and profitability), so he never wavered in his writing formula—find the man, tell the story of his struggles and victory, add lots of color with sharp vignettes and memorably drawn supporting actors; explain his impact, but never didactically; show how that impact fitted into and advanced Progress, even when mingled with failures and tragedies; repeat.
Schlesinger’s professional reputation endures thanks to his great three-volume history of FDR’s presidency in peacetime, and his earlier major work on Andrew Jackson’s presidency, which cast Jackson as a kind of antebellum Roosevelt: a progressive fighting for the little man (and woman), who in doing so faced down Eastern Big Money while drawing smart ideas from Eastern thinkers to build a trans-Appalachian West that would carry the nation not just westward but forward and upward.The Times’s reviewer immediately recognized that Schlesinger was arging “that Jacksonian democracy was not only democratic but the lineal and spiritual ancestor of the Rooseveltian New Deal.”
I can’t overemphasize Roosevelt’s heliocentricity in Schlesinger’s intellectual solar system. In the mid-1960s, Schlesinger would, after Dallas, celebrate Kennedy’s brief time in office by tying it to the nation’s long but never-ending Progressive advance. Aldous nicely captures this: “For Schlesinger. . . . the purpose of the life of the martyred president was national renewal; the historian claiming him as part of the long arc of the broad progressive tradition that he had already chronicled in the ages of Jackson and Roosevelt, and which went back to the Founding Fathers themselves.” Kennedy, in Arthur’s telling, had been a young man in a hurry, whose steady maturing in office (meticulously recorded by Schlesinger) liberalized him, leading his Administration to a robustly Keynesian economics, the first serious nuclear arms constraints, the most important steps toward civil rights legislation since Lincoln, the first real concerted action against poverty since Roosevelt—and even to planning an early withdrawal from Vietnam, although these plans died in Dealey Plaza.
Schlesinger’s last great work, Robert Kennedy and His Times, appeared in 1978. By then America was different; the story of Progress had become much harder to tell and even seemed wrong after Watergate, Vietnam, assassinations, social turmoil, deindustrialization, and more. It made this book elegiac, at times even dirge-like—yet even so, irreducible fragments (perhaps the genetic codes) of Arthur’s faith in Progress endured.
Aldous does an excellent job tracing the ups and downs of Schlesinger’s often tumultuous private life, the impact of Arthur Sr. on him, his wartime service in OSS, his early Cold War hostility to left-wingers, as well as to unions and academics whom he deemed “too soft” on Communism. We see him speechwriting for two disheartening Stevenson campaigns, but then renewed—reborn even—with the Phoenix-like rise of the Kennedy campaign and Kennedy presidency before its shocking, unexpected ending in Dallas. Aldous give us granular views of his life and emotions, in part because Arthur was a conscientious diarist most of his life.
The organizing conceit behind the title of Aldous’s biography is that Schlesinger was “The Imperial Historian”—a notion that I find simultaneously honest, laudatory, damning, and yet a little too detached. It’s an insider’s allusion to Schlesinger’s Imperial Presidency, his Watergate-era macroscopic view of presidential power from Washington to Nixon, in which he lamented the White House’s constantly expanding war powers abroad that, under Nixon, were now encroaching onto the domestic scene, with Nixon out of control. Schlesinger here is the “anti-imperial” historian, who admits to his own excessive hopes and enthusiasms for a powerful executive branch. It amounted to a bracing confession because it meant that, to him, the Roosevelt Era had now come to an end. But what would replace it? It was a question he never answered.
By the Nixon years, Schlesinger’s own life had changed almost as dramatically as the country. In the mid-1960s, he’d given up tenure at Harvard and its elysian-academic pursuits and moved to Manhattan, exchanging the scholar’s life for the socialite’s. He’d also divorced his wife Marian (whose father, like Arthur’s, was a distinguished Harvard professor), and married Alexandra Emmet, a much younger and more vivacious woman —and who into the bargain stood a head taller than the diminutive Arthur. She enjoyed the social swirl of Manhattan as much as he did. In lieu of the Harvard Faculty Club came Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. Sedate summers on the Cape yielded to swinging summers in the Hamptons. In place of door-stopping tomes he wrote op-eds, pamphlets, and the occasional manifesto.
Notably, he never completed his Roosevelt biography, and so never explored the imperatives behind FDR’s wartime shift from “Dr. New Deal” to “Dr. Win-the-War,” or the reasons why, by mid-war, Roosevelt was secretly weighing abandoning the Democratic Party, with its Bourbon racists and big-city bosses, in favor of a new Liberal Party that he and Wendell Willkie, his GOP opponent in 1940, would create and that would draw from Democrats and Republicans alike. Also left unexamined were why in 1944 he reluctantly replaced Henry Wallace with the disliked Harry Truman, or why he sought the powerful Wilsonian role that he did for the United Nations, or why he thought he could forge a postwar relationship with Stalin that might head off (or at least constrain) what soon enough became the Cold War.
Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor had become a different Roosevelt—one who, on one heroic level (vide the Atlantic Charter, the UN, Lend-Lease, etc.) still seemed dedicated to carrying Uplifting Progress to the world, but under whom a vast military was growing up and big business was recovering the enormous power and prestige it had lost during the Depression. Together, these elements were forging a new military-industrial complex and culture that would never recede.
Surveying all of this amidst the wreckage of the Nixon presidency, Schlesinger finally had bitterly come to realize that reconciling the expanded domestic welfare powers of the New Deal with the permanent warfare state had been impossible from the start. The New Deal’s authentically progressive programs, which had seemed briefly during the 1930s as if it could potentially redefine America’s politics and economy for a long time to come, had, by the 1950s, given way to a thoroughly conservative and materialist notion of “Progress”—as technological, profitable, and dedicated to reprogramming and subordinating the democratic citizen to the sybaritic consumer. Liberals like Arthur had not only not been unable to stop it, they had arguably helped its advance.
Worse still, as the Reagan Era dawned, Schlesinger also realized that most New Deal liberals, including himself, had been hardened by World War II—and then by the Cold War—in a way that had left them, along with the rest of the country, captive to Mars rather than apostles of Minerva, a reality that implied a much darker American nature and, therefore, future. For the fraught truth about Roosevelt’s descendants was not that they had carried the New Deal’s ideals forward, but that they had been thoroughly compromised, leaving modern liberal politics embedded in a conservative, redistributionist, racist—and from Hiroshima on, a thoroughly weaponized—capitalism.
Aldous clearly understands all this, but if I’ve a complaint, it’s that he never really picks up the challenge that Schlesinger and his Progressive historian ancestors left behind: that of laying out more than final facts and contexts of the past. He never really explores how New Deal liberals became Cold War liberals, who tarred by Vietnam in the 1960s (and then by McGovern’s disastrous defeat in 1972), effectively abandoned America’s historical stage, first to Reagan’s conservative Republican army, then in the late 1980s and 90s losing their place in the Democratic party to neoliberals and their market-friendly policies that showed, as Bill Clinton proclaimed, “The era of big government is over.”
Historians should, of course, strive for accuracy in terms of the past they present to us. Yet history’s most powerful and important role may arise when it forces us to use it in formulating our future. Schlesinger himself had that truth baked into him from the start. At 20, while still a Harvard undergraduate, he wrote: “History is set by the generation that writes the history, not by the one that makes it.”
That’s what make both Schlesinger and this biography so important. Together, they foretell the arduous, yet essential work still ahead for the current generation.