Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Remembering Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

In the Oval Office, 1962.


Mr. Schlesinger saw life as a walk through history. He wrote that he could not stroll down Fifth Avenue without wondering how the street and the people on it would have looked a hundred years ago.

“He is willing to argue that the search for an understanding of the past is not simply an aesthetic exercise but a path to the understanding of our own time,” Alan Brinkley, the historian, wrote.

Mr. Schlesinger wore a trademark dotted bowtie, showed an acid wit and had a magnificent bounce to his step. Between marathons of writing as much as 5,000 words a day, he was a fixture at Georgetown salons when Washington was clubbier and more elitist, a lifelong aficionado of perfectly-blended martinis and a man about New York, whether at Truman Capote’s famous parties or escorting Jacqueline Kennedy to the movies

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the NYT Book Review

But Mr. Schlesinger performed a different function. He stood at the forefront of a remarkable generation of academic historians. Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, and C. Vann Woodward, who died in 1999, were its other towering figures. All three, reciprocal admirers, wrote classic works that reanimated the past even as they rummaged in it for clues to understanding, if not solving, the most pressing political questions of the present. As a result, new books by these historians often generated excitement and conveyed an urgency felt not only by other scholars but also by the broader population of informed readers.

“The Vital Center,” which Mr. Schlesinger expanded from an article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1948, began with a ringing series of declarative sentences.

“Western man in the middle of the 20th century is tense, uncertain, adrift,” Mr. Schlesinger wrote. “We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”

All this, though, was a mere prelude to Mr. Schlesinger’s own brief reflections, as he put it, on the “relevance of history. ” His first point was that historians themselves are prisoners of their own experience, committed “to a doomed enterprise — the quest for an unattainable objectivity.” It was a disarming way of acknowledging the critics who had suggested that he, at times, had shaped history to fit his own liberal agenda. It was also a summons to other historians to be willing to concede error and revisit the past.

But a far more grievous failing, he said, is to ignore history altogether, especially in a nation that has so often demonstrated imperial appetites.
By Evan Thomas, Newsweek
Schlesinger was, in some ways, a walking reproach to modern academic historians. He believed in writing from experience, and he argued that individuals—and not just broad social and economic movements—shaped history.
Schlesinger could see that young Bush was developing a lifelong hatred of liberal intellectual elites out of the personal experience of being shunned by them. This insight always stayed with me as I watched Bush govern with a certain lack of intellectual curiousity and a visceral disdain for anything that The New York Times might try to tell him. Schlesinger understood that early personal experience could shape leaders and that leaders shaped history with their prejudices and cultural baggage.
Princeton Historian, Sean Wilentz:
Many of Arthur's critics complained that his political opinions tainted his writing about the past, and robbed it of objectivity. The criticism was unfair. Arthur knew that objectivity is not the same thing as neutrality. He presented his historical arguments with abundant research and powerful logic, bidding others to challenge his conclusions. And he was always willing (with a graciousness uncommon among professors) to admit when he was wrong. He often quoted the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, that "history is argument without end". Historical truth, or its closest approximation, does not arise perfected from the writings of all-knowing, objective historians, but from those unceasing arguments.
Schlesinger's 2007 short essay on Ronald Reagan, here:

He radiated civility and took disagreement in stride as a natural part of political life. He held together the Republican Party, that incongruous partnership of the country club and the revival meeting.
In the end, he failed to shrink big government.
The Reagan legacy? In 1995, Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" was supposed to complete the Reagan Revolution. It sank with hardly a trace, and Gingrich with it. Especially after 9/11, the antigovernment fever seems to be waning. Reaganism may prove to be a transient episode in the stream of American history. Yet memories will remain of Ronald Reagan himself as a gallant human being riding into the sunset of his life in a glow of national affection.
On how History will remember 9/11:

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: It all depends how we handle what comes next. We now have the possibility of going to war with Iraq and destabilizing the entire Arab world. The question is whether September 11 will lead to another global war, in which case it will be salient in memory, or whether it will lead to containment of Saddam Hussein and police and intelligence work against terrorism. In that case, it’s likely to end up more like Feb. 15, 1898, which was when the battleship Maine exploded—an important event that has faded in memory.

Schlesinger: I agree with Alan. I think that we are in a very dangerous relationship with the rest of the world. The go-it-alone policy of the United States—of the present administration—shows a certain amount of condescension and contempt for international institutions and for international opinion. After all, we may be omnipotent, but we’re not omniscient.
Fellow Historian David Brinkley:

If the nose is a conduit to memory, then Arthur never forgot the stink of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. There was nothing he despised more than right-wing bully-boys. With a few exceptions, like the old Nelson Rockefeller crowd, he found Republicans repugnant. But he didn't care for the hard left either. The whole Beat Generation and counterculture left him cold. Jack Kerouac and Abbie Hoffman were, to his mind, sloppy thinkers who didn't have our nation's best interest at heart. As his 1949 book, "The Vital Center," made clear, he found extremists of all kind to be flaming idiots.
Nobody enjoyed kibitzing about the crosscurrents of the past quite like Arthur. Over lunch he'd tell you about Grover Cleveland's affairs or Woodrow Wilson's wife as if these risqué tidbits were worthy of tomorrow's "Inside Edition." Dramatizing how short a span of 220 years was, at a bistro back in 1996, Arthur, a deep wrinkle between his eyes, abruptly asked me to shake his hand across the white-linen table. Dutifully, I did. "Just imagine," he said. "You just shook the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of a Revolutionary War general."

The lesson was clear: Our democratic experiment is very, very young in the scope of world history

"What sort of people are we, we Americans?" Schlesinger asked at a commencement speech given the day after Kennedy's fatal shooting. "We are today the most frightening people on this planet. ... We must uncover the roots of hatred and violence, and, through self-knowledge, move toward self-control."

Being a liberal, Schlesinger once observed, means regarding man as "neither brute nor angel." Whether discussing the Kennedys, Vietnam or the power of the presidency, Schlesinger sought moderation, the middle course. He blamed the Vietnam War on the moral extremism of the right and left and worried that the executive branch had become "imperial," calling for a "strong presidency within the Constitution." He saw American history itself as a continuing "cycle" between liberal and conservative power.
NY Sun Editorial Board:

So we invited the great historian to put it down in writing, which resulted in the publication, under Schlesinger's byline, of one of the oped pieces we've enjoyed the most in the Sun. It ran under the headline "Hold On There, He's Ours." The piece said that Hamilton's hero was not Adam Smith but Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who, Schlesinger wrote, invented the French commitment to statism and was a mercantilist who believed in state planning and regulation. "The idea that the free market could regulate itself Hamilton called ‘a wild speculative paradox,'" Schlesinger wrote. And he ended his piece by calling on New Yorkers to applaud the Manhattan Institute for celebrating "the father of big government in America."
William F. Buckley, Jr.
He died in New York on February 27, after being struck by a heart attack at dinner in a restaurant, and I think back on the lunch we shared after the funeral of Murray Kempton, ...
The Harvard Crimson:
He wrote in a 2000 memoir that his childhood spent living in the shadow of Radcliffe Yard (where the Schlesinger Library named for Schlesinger, Sr. and his wife Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger now stands) was “a generally sunny time,” occupied by the exchange of letters with prominent Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken and his parents’ Sunday teas that entertained Harvard professors and students alike.

“There was an innocence about growing up in those days,” recalled the perennially bow-tied Schlesinger in “A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings.”

He arrived on the second floor of Thayer Hall as a freshman in the fall of 1934. Tuition was $400; room and board totaled $700.

Ted Widmer, The New York Observer:
One always pulls down the old books at a moment like this, seeking contact with a friend. In one of them, The Politics of Hope (1963), there’s an essay that Arthur wrote about Bernard De Voto, another gifted historian too seldom read. He ended the essay with a passage that De Voto had written about Mark Twain, but which also seemed to be about Arthur himself, and the great historian who’d inspired him. I repeat it here, with the same feeling of gratitude:

“Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerves give to wisdom. Say rather that, when he looked at the human race, he saw no ranked battalion of the angels …. Say that with a desire however warm and with the tenderness of a lover, he nevertheless understood that the heart of a man is wayward, a dark forest. Say that it is not repudiation he comes to at last, but reconciliation—an assertion that democracy is not a pathway to the stars but only the articles of war under which the race fights an endless battle with itself.”

-Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. page at the Kennedy Presidential Library
-Featured author page from NYT Book Review.

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