“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.”
The historian worried deeply, and wrote frequently, about his concerns regarding the excessive secrecy and the disregard for the rule of law that have characterized the Bush presidency. But Schlesinger worried most about Bush’s misread of his role as commander-in-chief. A scholar of the separation of powers, and a true believer in the benefits of checks and balances, Schlesinger wanted the Congress to challenge Bush with regards to the rush to invade Iraq and the execution of the occupation that followed upon it.
Schlesinger was blunt about what he thought of Bush’s war in Iraq. It was, he wrote “based on fantasy, deception and self-deception.” He was equally blunt about what he thought of Bush’s hunger for a confrontation with Iran, which he suggested was “also fantasy, deception and self-deception.”
Above all, Schlesinger believed that Bush desperately needed advice and counsel from critics of his policies — be they members of Congress or Pulitzer Prize-winning historians who had freelanced as White House aides.
One of the finest of Schlesinger’s articles in recent years imagined “A Quiet Telephone Conversation With George W. Bush.” In it, he recalled the president asking for ideas about how to handle the Iraq imbroglio.
“I would seize an appropriate moment to declare victory — and cut and run,” Schlesinger imagined telling Bush, in an article written in 2OO5 for the Financial Times newspaper.
To Bush’s suggestion that such a move would “wreck our credibility,” the historian replied with just a bit of whimsy, “Cut-and-run has a bad reputation.” Then, explaining that he had heard the same fears expressed before the U.S. exit from Vietnam, Schlesinger continued, “The reaction of most foreigners was to see America, after a long aberration, coming to its senses. Cut-and-run got us out of an unwinnable war in which our vital interests were not involved. Cut-and-run liberated U.S. armed forces for containment and deterrence elsewhere on the planet. Our withdrawal from Vietnam actually increased our credibility — as de Gaulle’s retreat from Algeria increased France’s credibility. And the aftermath refuted the domino theory that got us into the Vietnam War — just as the aftermath refutes the weapons-of-mass-destruction theory that got us into the Iraq War. Mr. President, please contemplate our withdrawal from Vietnam as a historic precedent.”
In the imaginary conversation, Schlesinger acknowledged that, “The future of Iraq is uncertain. Cut-and-run might lead to free-for-all anarchy or to Islamic domination; but it might equally precipitate Sunni-Shiite-Kurd collaboration in containing the insurgency and governing the country. Maybe the shock of U.S. withdrawal will stimulate the rise of Iraqi responsibility.”
Rather than focus on what will happen in Iraq if the U.S. leaves, however, the historian suggested that Bush should more seriously consider the consequences of staying the course. “[Surely] so long as the American military occupation lasts, it serves as a recruiting incentive for terrorists all over the Middle East… That is the fatal contradiction in the policy of staying the course.”
After some addition sparring with Bush, who Schlesinger imagined referring to him as “Artie,” the historian finished by counseling, “Mr. President, our true national interests lie in ending this senseless war.”
There will be many epitaphs for Arthur Schlesinger Jr. But I suspect that the man who sought not merely to explain the arc of history but to bend it in the direction of sanity would appreciate being remembered as an American whose wisdom and patriotism prevented him from deferring to a presidents gone wrong. And that the great historian of the American presidency tried to his last to counsel a particularly imperial president to abandon a particularly wrong course.
Actually, if there is to be a specific epitaph, perhaps it is best taken from an article Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote late last summer, titled, “Bush’s Thousand Days.” He closed by warning that, “There is no more dangerous thing for a democracy than a foreign policy based on presidential preventive war.”
John Nichols’ new book is