Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: At 86, Still a Proud Liberal

Historians in the News

Hillel Italie, in the Concord Monitor (Sept. 9, 2004):

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., 86 years old and never more liberal, stares calmly from behind his large, clear-framed glasses and reviews the current stage of what he has called the "cycles" of American politics.

The historian has long theorized that the United States alternates between liberal and conservative eras, and the times now so favor the right that "liberal" has become an identity either avoided altogether or abridged to the tremulous "L-word."

But in Schlesinger's expansive, white-walled apartment, there is no rotation of power. "Liberal" is uttered in full, not sheepishly, but with a taut, vigorous smile worthy of a former aide to President Kennedy.

"If a candidate were to ask me if he should refer to himself, or herself, as a liberal, 'I would say, 'Yes, I'm a liberal, I'm an FDR liberal, a Harry Truman liberal, a JFK liberal,'" Schlesinger says during a recent interview.

A leading historian and political analyst for nearly 60 years, Schlesinger is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, known for such works as "The Age of Jackson" and "A Thousand Days," and he is a link to an era when government was regarded as more a solution than a problem.

While he is no longer actively involved in electoral politics and has written no full-length histories in years, he remains a kind of professor emeritus for both politicians and scholars. When John Kerry met with a group of Democratic writers and artists in New York last winter, Schlesinger was a featured guest. When historians speak of leaders in their profession, they inevitably cite Schlesinger.

"He's been a kind of role model who has showed that an academic historian can become a best seller and also become politically influential," says James McGregor Burns, a fellow historian and Kennedy supporter and a longtime friend.

"To me the test of a historian's greatness is whether his work will endure and Arthur Schlesinger's work, in my opinion, is going to endure," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro says.

"It's going endure because of the extraordinary depth and breadth of his historical knowledge ... and it's going to endure because of the insight and the precision and the drive and force of his writing."

Seated in a white armchair in his living room, late summer sun streaming in through French windows, Schlesinger is an aged, but sporty presence, wearing a seersucker jacket, pink shirt and light slacks. His voice - rumpled, sober, authoritative - suits the image of a "distinguished" historian, although it can turn unexpectedly boyish, even giddy, as when he confides that his recent mail included a signed copy of Bill Clinton's "My Life."

In "Robert Kennedy and His Times," published in 1978, Schlesinger offered a brief self-definition: "liberal, intellectual, professor, writer, agnostic." History is his creed, a source of both truth and consolation, and his new book, "War and the Imperial Presidency," is a critique of the Bush administration and an argument that the past contains solutions for the present.

"I think history is to the nation as memory is to the individual and an individual deprived of memory doesn't know where he's been and where he's going," Schlesinger says.
Reviewing events from the Sept. 11 attacks to the Iraq war, Schlesinger writes that unilateralism in foreign affairs, for which President Bush has been strongly criticized, is a tradition dating back to George Washington. He also dismisses wartime unity as a myth, noting that leaders from Lincoln to Truman have been harshly attacked in the midst of military conflict.

The news, Schlesinger believes, is Bush's advocacy of preventive war, attacking enemies before they can attack. Schlesinger says that supporters of such a policy were once regarded as "loonies" and quotes President Truman's remark that nothing is "more foolish than to think that war can be stopped by war."

"I think Bush has changed the whole basis of foreign policy," Schlesinger says. "It's a 180 degree shift and he's managed to do that without igniting a national debate about it, without most people being aware of it."

He is especially concerned by Bush's "serene but scary certitude," and his religious justification for his actions. "He is sustained by this enchantment that he is executing the will of the almighty, and that's very dangerous," Schlesinger says. "Ideology is the foe of reason and common sense."

Being an American liberal, Schlesinger once observed, means regarding man as "neither brute nor angel." He has long condemned both the far right and the far left, any system that denies the "perpetual tension" of a dynamic democracy. Whether discussing war, communism or the power of the presidency, Schlesinger has pursued the middle course, where experience coexists with ideals and reason counteracts emotion....

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