- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

HistorianArthur Schlesinger, who died Feb. 28 at age 89, once wrote that, “History is a weapon.”For more than 60 years, he brandished that weapon in the service of American liberalism, the Democratic Party and the Kennedy family. It won him not one but two Pulitzer Prizes (one for “History” in 1945, another for “A Thousand Days” in 1965) and made him the first of a now-familiar media type, the “presidential historian” who spends nearly as much time on “The Today Show” or “The McNeil News Hour” as in the National Archives, and who sells books by the carload.

Yet Mr. Schlesinger’s reputation as a professional historian has perhaps never been lower. His last original historical work, “The Age of Roosevelt,” appeared almost 50 years ago. Mr. Schlesinger’s fellow scholars generally recognized him for what he was, a political consultant disguised as an historian. Mr. Schlesinger made himself famous by doing so. But he also impoverished the profession by example, and it was not until his later years that he realized his historical weapon had a double edge.

Mr. Schlesinger’s present-mindedness is the key to his first important book, “The Age of Jackson,” published in 1945. Mr. Schlesinger blatantly turned Andrew Jackson into a Franklin Roosevelt prototype, working to lift up the same huddled masses who clustered at the feet of New Deal big government during the Depression. Jackson’s enemies of the 1830s even turned out to be the same businessmen and reactionaries who opposed in the New Deal in the 1930s. Both in “The Age of Jackson” and its successor, “The Age of Roosevelt,” Mr. Schlesinger proclaimed that from being an unprecedented growth of government, the New Deal was the culmination of American history and democracy, just as its Republican opponents — the “Old Order,” as Mr. Schlesinger scornfully called them — belonged in the ashcan of history.

Indeed, over the next half century, Mr. Schlesinger’s view never altered. He never understood the role of business in the making of America, or of religion in the making of the American people: serious lapses for an historian. He constantly underestimated those who rejected his high grade Harvard-cum-Georgetown cocktail party-cum-West Side Manhattan liberalism, men like Joseph McCarthy and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and dismissed those who voted for them. To Mr. Schlesinger, the American masses had no views of their own. They were simply the human clay from which great reformers and Democratic presidents fashioned a more just and equitable society, presidents like Jackson, Roosevelt and then John F. Kennedy.

In his dealings with the Kennedys, Mr. Schlesinger became a type familiar in Renaissance Europe, the historian courtier, who employs his pen to promote the glory of the ruling dynasty, in this case the Camelot Kennedys. In exchange, Mr. Schlesinger enjoyed the glamour and prestige of being a special assistant to the president, traveling to meet friends with police escort and sirens blazing, sitting in on meetings in the Oval Office; a voyeur of power in action. As such, Mr. Schlesinger wrote a fawning account of Kennedy’s flawed presidency, “A Thousand Days,” which Gore Vidal called “the greatest piece of historical fiction since ‘Coningsby,’ ” Benjamin Disraeli’s romantic novel of Victorian politics, but lingering grief over the Kennedy assassination made it a natural for Mr. Schlesinger’s second Pulitzer. This was followed by a hero-worshipping biography of Robert Kennedy, but could not disguise the fact that with the Kennedy assassinations and the Vietnam War (which Mr. Schlesinger, in true Democratic fashion, supported when it was going well and opposed when it was going badly), the liberal hour, and Mr. Schlesinger’s reign, were over.

Mr. Schlesinger continued to produce best-selling books, including one titled “The Cycles of American History,” in order to convince himself that the election of Ronald Reagan was only a temporary aberration and that the pendulum would swing back to New Deal liberalism again in the 1990s — a prediction the Republican victory in 1994 made seem somewhat premature. Mr. Schlesinger also grew distressed at the rise of strange new gods in the American academy: deconstruction, radical Marxism and feminism, and multiculturalism, as his own books disappeared from college course reading lists to be replaced by books by Noam Chomsky, Michael Foucault and the Afrocentrist Leonard Jeffreys.

In 1991, Mr. Schlesinger struck back with “The Disuniting of America.” Ironically, it is a devastating attack on the use of ideology to revise and distort American history — while ignoring the degree to which Mr. Schlesinger had opened the door to this kind of distortion himself. But as a passionate defense of a common American identity based on a belief in freedom, liberty and opportunity, “Disuniting of America” holds up best of all Mr. Schlesinger’s books in the shadow of September 11. It ends with a quotation from the 18th century French traveler Crevecoeur: “What then is the American, this new man?… Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”

Mr. Schlesinger adds, “Still a good answer — still the best hope.” Amen.

Arthur Herman is an author and historian.


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