Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian
by Richard Aldous.
W.W. Norton, 2017.
Hardcover, 486 pages, $30.

John C. Chalberg

Early on in his magisterial biography of an “imperial historian,” biographer Richard Aldous asks a question that he never really answers: Was Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. a great historian or something less than that, perhaps something akin to a popularizer-turned-court historian?

Perhaps that reluctance explains the subtitle. Schlesinger the great historian would be a bit much. And Schlesinger the court historian would be a bit unfair. So Aldous apparently decided to play on Schlesinger’s sudden discovery that America was saddled with an imperial presidency (meaning the Nixon presidency as opposed to that of, say, FDR or JFK). But imperial historian? Imperious historian would have been more like it.

One can only imagine the field day that an imperious Professor Schlesinger would have had with the presidency of one Donald Trump. In any case it’s more than a little curious, not to mention telling, that Schlesinger, the liberal historian, did not get around to questioning a powerful presidency until it was in the hands of someone whom he thoroughly detested.

His distaste for Richard Nixon never did go away, even though Nixon was not exactly a conservative—and even though the two were briefly neighbors in New York City in the late 1980s. In any case, if it took the presidency of a fellow Cold Warrior and occasional liberal for Schlesinger to question the “imperial presidency,” imagine how his entire grave must be spinning at the full-time reality of a part-time reality TV star as president, especially one who sees himself as a modern day Andy Jackson.

At the tender age of twenty-eight, Schlesinger won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jacksonwhich portrayed Old Hickory as a herald of New Deal progressivism. Previous scholars of the Jacksonian era had emphasized the new Democratic party alliance of southerners and Midwestern farmers. Schlesinger added eastern working men to the mix; hence the New Deal coalition in embryonic form.

Is there a parallel between Jackson and Trump? Yes and no. Both have fancied themselves to be populists. Both promised to shake up the established order. Both regarded a powerful presidency as a powerfully important tool. And both had—and have—notoriously thin skins.

On the other hand, Jackson, the ex-senator and ex-judge, was not exactly a political novice or a political outsider, while Trump, the one-time draft evader, has never exactly been a war hero.

If Trump isn’t exactly Andy Jackson, how about Trump as a latter-day JFK? After all, both had wealthy fathers who helped prepare the way for them. Both were creatures of celebrity. Both have had, shall we say, checkered sexual histories. Both have opposed abortion (although one did so reflexively and at a time when the issue was not a politically charged one, while the other has had a rather late-in-life conversion). Both have used ghost writers to advance their careers. Both were essentially non-ideological types before coming to the presidency. To varying degrees, before assuming the presidency both were Democrats whom some other Democrats regarded with suspicion. As candidates, both promised to get the country moving again, courtesy of tax cuts and an enhanced military. And as presidents, both delivered on those promises.

If Schlesinger would be appalled at these Trump-Kennedy parallels, there is little evidence here that he was similarly appalled by the left turn of his party in the decades following the death of JFK. While there would be no Age of McGovern for Schlesinger to chronicle, he did move imperiously leftward with his party during his lengthy post-JFK life.

Imperiously? It was all part of his being “Arthurish,” to borrow slightly from a chapter title prompted by Lee Udall, wife of Kennedy’s Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who once described Schlesinger as looking so “Arthurish.” Arthurish? While Aldous hesitates to use the word, a synonym might be snobbish, which the junior Schlesinger was quite capable of being at almost any point of his long life.

Schlesinger’s “Arthurishness” was certainly given a boost by his Harvard pedigree, which came with no little help from his father who had blazed the family trail there. The junior Schlesinger may have appeared to have had ancient New England ancestry written all over him. Actually, he was the grandson of German immigrants who migrated directly to the American Midwest and remained there. Christened Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, the younger Schlesinger legally became a junior by jettisoning Bancroft for Meier while a teenager. By this point the senior Schlesinger was a Harvard history professor. After obtaining his Harvard B.A. and doing wartime stints with the OWI and the OSS, the junior Schlesinger would also assume a Harvard professorship—and all without benefit of an advanced degree. Good for Harvard on that score. But then Harvard, being Harvard, can do things like that.

Between World War II and the Kennedy presidency Schlesinger pursued three careers simultaneously. He was a member of the Harvard faculty, a published historian of much more than minor note, and a Democratic party activist of well more than casual note. During these years he taught on a somewhat irregular basis, published three of a projected four volume history of the age of FDR, and expended considerable time, talent, and energy seeking to accomplish the politically impossible task of elevating Adlai Stevenson to the White House.

Aldous dwells at some length on those last two enterprises. But he is all too content to let an endless string of contemporary reviewers tell us what to think about the Roosevelt trilogy (minus the foreign policy volume that would never be written) without really analyzing them himself. To be sure, he detects “Manichean” tendencies in each volume. But he might have helped himself answer his own question concerning Schlesinger’s standing as an historian had he provided his own detailed treatment of Schlesinger the historian.

Or perhaps Schlesinger himself best captured his own work in a very few words. Following the publication of the first of his age of FDR books, he confided to an ally that any success it had would “serve the liberal cause.” And when all has been said and written, serving the liberal cause was the point of Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr.’s, professorial and literary careers.

Everything in this book is either a prelude or a footnote to Schlesinger’s dual roles, first as a Stevensonian liberal and finally as court historian to the Kennedys. Initially put off by JFK, whom he found to be “cold and ruthless,” Schlesinger gradually warmed to the young senator, even as he felt guilty about abandoning Stevenson. By the time the fall campaign of 1960 was underway, JFK had “converted” Schlesinger, who by then had decided that Kennedy was a “much richer, more thoughtful, more creative person” than he had initially thought. More than that, he concluded that JFK was actually a liberal, although one whose commitment to liberalism came by way of a “sense of history” rather than by “inner conviction.”

The heart of this biography is the Schlesinger tour of duty with the Kennedys, meaning the presidency of JFK and the run for the presidency of RFK. This is not to suggest that Schlesinger played anything close to a vital policy role in the Kennedy White House. He certainly wasn’t at the vital center of things, stationed as he was in an East Wing office. Bobby Kennedy probably best summed up the Schlesinger role with these dismissive words: “He didn’t do a helluva lot, but he was good to have around.”

Good? He was perhaps that by way of serving as an ambassador to the Stevenson wing of the party. And he certainly was well-positioned to write his court history of the Kennedy presidency. But there is little evidence that he exerted any influence on any policy decision.

To read Aldous on Schlesinger and the Kennedy administration is to encounter a frustrated Schlesinger, whether he was competing with Ted Sorensen for the title of speechwriter-in-chief or whether the matter at hand was trying to rein in JFK’s hawkish Cold War instincts. Think of Bay of Pigs and Schlesinger’s failed opposition to that failed venture.

To read these chapters is also to recall a time when the Democratic party was at least willing to entertain notions of conducting a robust foreign policy—or at least a semi-robust foreign policy. This time think of both the Bay of Pigs and the eventual disaster that was the way that the “best and the brightest” chose to prosecute the war in Vietnam.

To read the Vietnam story is to become entangled in the roots of the retreat of the liberal establishment into McGovernism. If the young Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., helped advance liberal anticommunism, the junior Schlesinger as party elder statesman symbolized the shift within the party that prepared the way for Ronald Reagan and a foreign policy of conservative anticommunism. (By the way, Ronald Reagan makes a cameo appearance here by writing to thank Schlesinger for his book, The Vital Center, when both Reagan and Schlesinger were serious liberals and serious anti-communists.)

Shattered and somewhat embittered by the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Schlesinger never again played a significant role in Democratic party politics. But he remained the keeper of the Kennedy flame with a massive biography of RFK, whom Schlesinger judged would have made a better—and more liberal—president than his older brother.

Was Schlesinger aware of the dark side of Camelot? Did he see behind the Kennedy myth? Was he aware of either JFK’s sexual exploits or his ongoing bout with Addison’s disease? Aldous offers a qualified “no” on the first question and a qualified “yes” on the second. Then he asks, did Schlesinger fool us? Or did we fool ourselves?

Perhaps better questions to ask are these: Did the Kennedys fool Arthur Schlesinger? Or did Schlesinger succeed in fooling himself? There certainly were things about the Kennedys that he preferred not to know. Besides, Schlesinger liked to believe that the life of a liberal political leader should be defined by its purpose, rather than its foibles. For JFK, that purpose was national renewal, and that was all that this court historian needed to know in order to excuse or ignore any dark side.

There can be little doubt that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was a court historian. But was he more than that? Was he also a great historian? Perhaps he might have been. A fine stylist, his Age of Jackson was an excellent, even trail-blazing piece of work that is still worth reading today. The Roosevelt volumes constitute purposeful history at its best—and worst. They certainly provide evidence of Arthur Schlesinger’s ongoing effort to use history to promote both a liberal agenda and a powerful presidency. His was really a very simple story of FDR rescuing the country from the clutches of the “stupidity and wickedness of business.” A young reviewer by the name of Norman Podhoretz was right then, and he remains right today: “Schlesinger was incapable of doing justice to any idea with which he disagreed.”

In retirement from his service to the related causes of mid-century liberalism and the Kennedys, Schlesinger did continue to write purposeful history. Exhibit A is The Imperial Presidencyand Exhibit B is The Cycles of American History. To be fair, the first book did call for balance between restraint and flexibility in the exercise of presidential power. Schlesinger also cautioned against an “inordinate swing” away from executive power. The presidency may have grown unwieldy, even out of control, but he worried that a bold move in reverse could also be damaging. All this circumspection on Schlesinger’s part could not quite disguise the obvious, which was that he never would have written The Imperial Presidency had Bobby Kennedy lived to defeat Richard Nixon in 1968.

Schlesingerian circumspection was also on display in his cycles book. Borrowed from a theme pioneered by his father, the junior Schlesinger detected repeated swings between liberals and conservatives throughout American history. Without disguising his preference for liberal government, Schlesinger once again saw a need for balance—so long as government in the hands of conservatives meant consolidation of liberal achievements, rather than any turning in a conservative direction by way of repealing or dismantling those achievements.

In sum, whether as court historian or not, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote history either to celebrate a liberal past or advance a liberal future. Yale historian C. Vann Woodward was right: Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a partisan historian.

In the end, biographer Richard Aldous doesn’t really agree or disagree with Professor Woodward. Instead, he concludes by borrowing from a surprising source: Oscar Wilde. At the very least Aldous thinks that Schlesinger fulfilled a charge long ago put forth by Wilde: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

As applied to Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr., the key word in that sentence is “duty.” Drawn to the powerful, or at least to powerful liberals, as a moth is to flame, Schlesinger still managed to find time to do his duty to his version of history. A man of action andthought, Schlesinger wrote political history for a political purpose. He wrote well and much, thereby leaving plenty of opportunities for future historians to do their duty in turn. After all, given Wilde’s dictum, there should be little basis for objecting to rewriting the many stories that the very “Arthurish” Mr. Schlesinger has given us.  

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota.