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Arthur Schlesinger, historian, advisor to Kennedy, dies at 89

Arthur Schlesinger, historian, advisor to Kennedy, dies at 89
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First Published: Thu, Mar 01 2007. 04 42 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Mar 01 2007. 04 42 PM IST
By Cary O’Reilly, Bloomberg
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian who became an adviser to President John F. Kennedy and helped define his legacy for a generation, has died, according to the New York Times. He was 89.
Schlesinger’s son Stephen said the cause of death was a heart attack, the Times reported. He died at New York Downtown Hospital, the newspaper said.
For much of his life, Schlesinger was a leading voice of American liberalism, using his writings on great movements in U.S. political history to champion the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and defend national government interventions in the economy in order to raise living standards.
The bow-tied, bespectacled academic made the transition from the ivory tower to the White House, becoming an adviser to Kennedy on domestic and international affairs. His history of the administration, “A Thousand Days,” written after Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, helped promote the “Camelot” myth of the greatness that might have been achieved had the president lived.
“Schlesinger was always trying to restore liberalism, to revive it, to give it a new sense of vigour,” said Peter Kuznick, a professor of history at American University in Washington, in an interview. “He did everything he could to promote the image of Kennedy as a crusading liberal.”
In his best-selling books on the presidencies of Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, Schlesinger sought to show how the welding of a strong national government with control over markets was a natural progression of developments in American history and the only way of providing equal opportunity for all.
Soviet Critic
A harsh critic of unbridled American capitalism, Schlesinger never fell sway to the allure of communist utopianism. Born in Ohio and educated at Harvard University, Schlesinger was not a part of the working class and he clashed with Soviet apologists on the left who ignored Josef Stalin’s brutal totalitarianism while speaking of class struggle.
He saw the Soviet Union for what it was: a land where industrialization and mass starvation went hand in hand; where individual liberty was ruthlessly crushed.
Schlesinger was a liberal cold warrior, advocating an expansive government with strong control of the economy as a bulwark against communism. A strong supporter of the buildup in Vietnam while working for Kennedy, he became a critic of the war in Southeast Asia after leaving the White House.
Big Government
He never wavered in this vision of history as a series of cycles, even as presidents from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton promoted free-market capitalism and eschewed “Big Government.”
In Schlesinger’s view, the gradual erosion of New Deal policies over the past half century were only the latest swing of the pendulum between liberal and conservative ideologies that had ebbed and flowed throughout American history, and which would eventually swing back.
In his last decades, Schlesinger became more pessimistic about the country’s future. He broke with liberal intellectuals and became one of the fiercest critics of multiculturalism, a trend which he felt has the potential to rip the country apart. He also attacked the “imperial presidency,” a phrase he coined to describe the Nixon administration, of George W. Bush.
Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr., was born 15 October 1917, in Xenia, Ohio, to a family of prominent historians.
His father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., was a pioneer in the study of social history and the role of women in America’s past. His mother, Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger, was a descendent of the George Bancroft, a famous pre-Civil War historian.
He enrolled at Harvard at 16 and graduated summa cum laude in 1938, two years ahead of his contemporary Kennedy.
Schlesinger’s senior thesis, a biography of the 19th century American Catholic intellectual Orestes A. Brownson, was published the next year. The book launched Schlesinger’s career as a historian and won him fellowships to Harvard and Cambridge.
In 1940, Schlesinger married Marian Cannon. Soon after the birth of twins, a boy and a girl, Schlesinger went to Washington to serve aid in the war effort. He was assigned to the Office of War Information, and later with the Office of Strategic Services, during which time he finished his next book, “The Age of Jackson.”
In the book, Schlesinger portrayed “Old Hickory” as a forerunner New Deal Democrat, seeking to establish a historical precedent for Roosevelt’s policies. Hailed as a landmark work, “The Age of Jackson” won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize.
Sales Success
Sales topped 90,000 copies, far exceeding expectations of his publisher and leading to a faculty position at Harvard at the age of 29, after his discharge from the Army.
As his academic reputation soared, so did his interest in liberal politics. He co-founded Americans for Democratic Action with Eleanor Roosevelt and Hubert Humphrey in 1948.
In the preface to his 1949 book, “The Vital Center,” Schlesinger wrote of his powerful faith in American liberalism and the New Deal.
“I heard Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address as a boy at school, fifteen years old,” Schlesinger wrote. “Since that March day in 1933, one has been able to feel that liberal ideas had access to power in the U.S.”
Schlesinger joined the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and began work on what many historians believe was his greatest achievement, “The Age of Roosevelt,” published in three volumes between 1957 and 1960. He was said to be working on a fourth volume at the time of his death.
Kennedy Administration
In 1960, Schlesinger joined the Kennedy administration as special assistant and unofficial historian. Kennedy had sought to differentiate his administration from Dwight Eisenhower’s by adding intellectuals like Schlesinger to his cabinet.
Schlesinger, who loved to drop names of the famous people he worked and socialized with, often told the story of his meeting with the newly elected president in 1961. After shaking hands, Schlesinger nervously told Kennedy: “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing here.”
“Neither am I,” the president responded.
Schlesinger remained at the White House until 1964, advising the president against the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and acting as the administration’s liaison to the American intellectual community.
In this role, he had a front-row seat during the Cuban Missile crisis, which he portrayed vividly in his books. His opposition to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro did not extend to the country’s famous cigars, of which he was a lifelong aficionado.
‘A Thousand Days’
Following the president’s 1963 assassination, Schlesinger wrote “A Thousand Days: Kennedy in the White House.” The book won Schlesinger the National Book Award and his second Pulitzer, though his close association with the Kennedy’s tarnished his reputation as an academic, especially as time passed and as other historians questioned the mythology that surrounded Kennedy.
“The measure of what is historically important is set by the generation that writes the history, not the one that makes it,” Schlesinger presciently wrote in the introductory note to his first book, “Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Schlesinger left government service and became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. While he never abandoned his faith in liberal ideals, his outlook became increasingly pessimistic, especially after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. His next book, in 1969, was “The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Power and Violence in America. ”
Divorced in 1970, Schlesinger married Alexandra Emmet in 1971. They named their son Robert Emmet Kennedy Schlesinger.
National Book Award
He won a second National Book Award for “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” published in 1978. Schlesinger was named Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, retiring from academia in 1996.
“Arthur Schlesinger epitomizes the historian as public intellectual, a dying breed in America,” said Jerald Podair, associate professor of history at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “In an intellectually isolated historical profession where professors write solely for each other, Schlesinger writes for informed Americans, both academics and laymen. His is a unique American voice.”
In his 1998 book, “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society,” Schlesinger lamented “identity politics” which he warned will undermine national unity.
Schlesinger’s last book, published in 2004, was “War and the American Presidency.” In it, he returned to the theme of the imperial presidency, criticizing the unilateralism in the Bush administration.
John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist who advised Democratic presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson and who taught at Harvard before his death in April 2006, wrote about the lessons of Schlesinger’s life in an essay published in 1997.
“The good historian does not stop with the history,” Galbraith wrote. “As the situation requires and compels, he goes on to making it.”
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First Published: Thu, Mar 01 2007. 04 42 PM IST