“The good historian does not stop with the history. As the situation requires and compels, he goes on to making it.”– John Kenneth Galbraith on the legacy of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who has died at age 89, remained an active and important commentator on American politics until his last days. In New York City, where he resided, he was a steady presence — not merely on the op-ed page of The New York Times but at events like the debut of Robert Greenwald’s documentary “Outfoxed,” where I recall talking with him at great length about our mutual sense of the sorry state of American media in the 21st century.
There will be much discussion about Schlesinger’s legacy; wise and well-meaning commentators will diverge with regard to the important contributions of this multifaceted man. He played a central role in defining post-war liberalism, helping Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey and others to forge Americans for Democratic Action — and then explaining the ideology, with his 1949 book, The Vital Center. He authored essential texts on American democracy and the presidency, especially his first-hand recollection of serving in the administration of John Kennedy, A Thousand Days. He advised presidents, including Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and he challenged presidents — Schlesinger’s high-profile departure from the Johnson administration was followed by his emergence as one of the most articulate and aggressive critics of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He nurtured and encouraged several generations of young historians and writers, including this one, who even as we sometimes disagreed on fine points regarding Henry Wallace or multiculturalism had the great pleasure of spending many an afternoon talking politics with the historian in his old offices at the Graduate School of the City of New York.
I will always value Schlesinger most for his popularization of the concept that America in the 2Oth century developed an “imperial presidency.” Schlesinger, a confidante of candidates and presidents from Adlai Stevenson to Bobby Kennedy to Bill Clinton, was not so averse to the exercise of presidential powers as some of us. But he was a brilliant student of the accumulations and abuses of those powers. And he boldly spoke up when he believed presidents had stepped across Constitutional and moral lines. While Schlesinger popularized the phrase, “the imperial presidency,” as a description for the excesses of Richard Nixon, he applied it with even greater urgency to the presidency of George W. Bush.
In the early 197Os, Schlesinger wrote of his fear that American political system was threatened by “a conception of presidential power so spacious and peremptory as to imply a radical transformation of the traditional polity.”
Thirty years later, Schlesinger saw those fears realized in ways that even he had not dared imagine. When John Dean, who would suggest that the misdeeds of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were “worse than Watergate,” asked Schlesinger if the Bush presidency met the classic definition of executive excess, the historian replied, “I’d certainly say this is an imperial presidency.”