Arthur Schlesinger, Jr: His "vital center" was neither vital nor a center, says conservative

Historians in the News

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who died in February at the age of 89, spent 60 years being famous as an emblem and arbiter of American liberalism, though his importance waned as liberalism's did. "It's amazing, in retrospect," Nicholas Lemann wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1998, "what a long string of Presidents--from Truman all the way to Carter--felt a twinge of terror at the possibility of . . . incurring the disapproval of Arthur Schlesinger." Schlesinger's good opinion was tantamount, Lemann notes, to the "good opinion of the centrist-liberal establishment."

His career moved from triumph to triumph during the middle third of the 20th century, when liberalism was ascendant. His second book, "The Age of Jackson," won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946, when he was 27. As befits a man who, according to the New York Times obituary, frequently wrote 5,000 words a day, Schlesinger authored more than 20 books and hundreds of articles for periodicals that ranged from Foreign Affairs to Ladies' Home Journal. Before 1960 he finished three volumes of "The Age of Roosevelt"--"The Crisis of the Old Order" (1957), "The Coming of the New Deal" (1958), and "The Politics of Upheaval" (1960). (He never completed the remaining volumes, which would have covered the final eight years of Roosevelt's presidency.)

Schlesinger played a central role in founding Americans for Democratic Action in 1947, and his influential book of 1949, "The Vital Center," remains the best expression of the ADA worldview. He was a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, but switched to Kennedy in 1960, subsequently accepting Kennedy's offer to work in the White House as a special assistant. He left the Johnson administration two months after Dallas, going on to win a second Pulitzer with "A Thousand Days" (1965), his history of the Kennedy presidency. He was active in Robert Kennedy's brief presidential campaign in 1968, writing a best-selling biography of RFK 10 years later.

The last campaign in which Schlesinger played a significant role was Ted Kennedy's attempt to wrest the Democratic nomination from Jimmy Carter in 1980. Kennedy's defeat by the more conservative Carter, and then Carter's defeat by the much more conservative Ronald Reagan, sent Schlesinger--and liberalism--into internal exile. Unlike his seven immediate predecessors in the Oval Office, "Reagan couldn't have cared less" what Schlesinger had to say, according to Mr. Lemann.

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