This very public intellectual, who died in 2007, has found in Richard Aldous an agreeably judicious biographer. A professor at Bard College, Aldous gracefully balances an appreciation for his subject’s talents as a writer of narratives and speeches with an acknowledgment of his shortcomings as a political analyst and aide. The narrative dispenses rather briskly with the details of Schlesinger’s personal life, stopping only to sketch his closeness to his father, another much-honored historian, and his long but difficult first marriage.
While always empathetic, Aldous makes clear that Schlesinger was more effective on the page than he was in action. His admiration for Stevenson’s qualities of mind prevented him from realizing that such an indecisive spinner of liberal abstractions was never going to lead the Democrats back to victory. And Schlesinger quickly became an isolated figure in J.F.K.’s White House, unable to supplant Theodore Sorensen as lead speechwriter and uncomfortable with the reigning ethos of realpolitik in foreign affairs. He also got involved in “embarrassing public spats” with figures like William F. Buckley Jr., who concocted a flattering blurb by Schlesinger to paste mischievously on his own book. The president did enjoy chatting about history and policy with his special assistant. Yet J.F.K., his brother Robert recalled, also “thought he was a little bit of a nut sometimes.”
The day after the tragedy in Dallas, Schlesinger set aside his frustrations and embarked on the project that brought him both fame and a reputation as the “courtier” of the Kennedy clan that he would never live down. What made it possible for him to write “A Thousand Days,” Aldous explains, was that “the legacy project mattered” to both Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy. The widow trusted Schlesinger’s gravitas as a historian, while her brother-in-law “had to position himself in relation to the dead president” as he got ready to run for office himself. The book that resulted, completed just over a year after the assassination, endures as a masterly portrait of a man its author believed had been the perfect leader for a nation in the nuclear age at the zenith of its prosperity and global sway: “Underneath the casualness, wit and idealism,” Schlesinger writes of the late president, “he was taut, concentrating, vibrating with inner tension under iron control, possessed by a fatalism which drove him on against the odds to meet his destiny.”
Of course, America’s “century” essentially expired with the debacle in Indochina, bequeathing a skepticism about presidential heroism that seems to harden with every administration. That Time cover, reflects Aldous, “signified Schlesinger’s arrival as a national figure.” But he never worked for a president again, and nothing he wrote in the four decades that remained to him received nearly so much praise or sold as many copies.
Schlesinger kept writing books he hoped would “serve the liberal cause,” as he had intended for his past works. But they were jeremiads about America’s declension rather than heralds of its rendezvous with a destiny of progress. In “The Imperial Presidency,” published in 1973, Schlesinger argued that Richard Nixon’s tenure was the baleful result of a drift of state power away from Congress that had been abetted even by chief executives he revered, like F.D.R. and J.F.K. In his 1991 book “The Disuniting of America” (see Page 17), he hammered advocates of multiculturalism for viewing American history through the lens of racial oppression and clashing ethnic identities. Any passionate renewal of the promotion of the general welfare would be possible, he contended, only if Americans focused on ideals and an identity they shared rather than venting grievances that divided them.
It’s unfortunate that Aldous rushes through Schlesinger’s last four decades, devoting just a few paragraphs to his later works. He misses an opportunity to examine how Schlesinger’s gradual loss of intellectual influence mirrored the crisis of American liberalism itself. The defeat in Vietnam — plus economic stagnation, the rise of identity politics and the New Right — shattered the old confidence that a state headed by patriarchal white men could ensure peace and plenty. In the decades to come, fawning portraits of liberal politicians, however fluently crafted, would no longer make their authors famous, and would be shunned by academics of every ideological persuasion.
Neither do prominent intellectuals enjoy the kind of entree to presidents and their campaigns that Schlesinger and his friends took for granted. Speechwriting is more a profession than an avocation now. Barack Obama, one of the more erudite chief executives in our history, held several dinners with historians while in the White House, but none of them had an office there.
Schlesinger’s liberal panegyrics can still be read with pleasure, even if one winces at his reluctance to abide any serious criticism of his idols. Yet the world of politics and letters that inspired both his enthusiasms and his antipathies no longer exists. As the historian himself put it a few weeks before his death: “The future outwits all our certitudes.”