Arthur Schlesinger -Dead at 89

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and "court philosopher" of the Kennedy administration who remained a proud liberal even as others dared not use the word, has died. He was 89.

Schlesinger was dining with family members in Manhattan on Wednesday when he suffered a heart attack, his son Stephen said. He died at New York Downtown Hospital.

Schlesinger was among the most prominent historians of his time, widely respected as learned and readable, with a panoramic vision of American culture and politics. He received a National Book Award for "Robert Kennedy and His Times" and a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for "A Thousand Days," his memoir/chronicle of President Kennedy's administration. He also won a Pulitzer, in 1946, for "The Age of Jackson," his landmark chronicle of Andrew Jackson's administration.

"(He had) enormous stamina and a kind of energy and drive which most people don't have, and it kept him going, all the way through his final hours," Stephen Schlesinger said early Thursday. "He never stopped writing, he never stopped participating in public affairs, he never stopped having his views about politics and his love of this nation."

He was a longtime confidant of the Kennedys, a fellow Harvard man who served in President Kennedy's administration and was often criticized for refusing to gossip, especially for not mentioning the president's alleged, extramarital affairs.

"At no point in my experience did his preoccupation with women — apart from Caroline crawling around the Oval Office — interfere with his conduct of the public business," Schlesinger wrote.

In the 1950s, Schlesinger became increasingly involved in electoral politics, supporting Adlai Stevenson, the erudite Illinois governor and two-time loser to Dwight Eisenhower for the presidency. In 1960, the historian switched his loyalty to Kennedy, even as he acknowledged that Stevenson was a "much richer, more thoughtful, more creative person."

Liberals were wary of Kennedy, but Schlesinger, tired of Stevenson's dreamy detachment, was drawn to Kennedy's "cool, measured, intelligent concern." Over time, he came to embody Schlesinger's ideal for a head of state: charismatic but not dogmatic; progressive yet practical; a realist, he once observed, brilliantly disguised as a romantic.

Kennedy appointed the Schlesinger a special assistant, an unofficial "court philosopher" of symbolic, if not practical power. The high-minded historian was soon trapped in the tangle of superpower politics: the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the disastrous attempt to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro

His time in government was brief. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and the historian soon left the administration of his successor, Lyndon Johnson. ("With Kennedy gone, it was no longer exhilarating," Schlesinger explained). Schlesinger then supported Robert Kennedy's brief, tragic 1968 campaign.

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.

In 1998, Schlesinger opposed Republican-led attempts to have President Clinton removed from office, and he later criticized President George W. Bush for his doctrine of "preventive war," saying "I think the whole notion of America as the world's judge, jury and executioner is a tragically mistaken notion."

According to Arthur Schlesinger Jr, the greatest historian in our lifetime:

In 2003, owing to the collapse of the Democratic opposition, Bush shifted the base of American foreign policy from containment-deterrence to presidential preventive war: Be silent; I see it, if you don't. Observers describe Bush as "messianic" in his conviction that he is fulfilling the divine purpose. But, as Lincoln observed in his second inaugural address, "The Almighty has His own purposes."

There stretch ahead for Bush a thousand days of his own. He might use them to start the third Bush war: the Afghan war (justified), the Iraq war (based on fantasy, deception and self-deception), the Iran war (also fantasy, deception and self-deception). There is no more dangerous thing for a democracy than a foreign policy based on presidential preventive war.

Maybe President Bush, who seems a humane man, might be moved by daily sorrows of death and destruction to forgo solo preventive war and return to cooperation with other countries in the interest of collective security. Abraham Lincoln would rejoice.

We ignore our own history at our own peril.


 
 

 
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