The Politics of Hope
by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Houghton Mifflin, $5.00
Of the twenty essays here, written between 1949 and 1960 for a spectrum ranging from Partisan Review down to the Saturday Evening Post, six seemed to me excellent, nine poor, and five so-so. Quality was in inverse ratio to length and ambitiousness. Of the good ones, two are reportage: “Varieties of Communist Experience,” about a month’s trip in Russia, Poland, and Yugoslavia, and “Invasion of Europe, Family Style,” a feuilleton carried off with style in a mere six pages. Four are polemics: “The Causes of the Civil War”; “The Statistical Soldier,” a debunking of “social science” via a review of a two-volume work he describes as “a ponderous demonstration in Newspeak of such facts as these: new recruits do not like noncoms; front-line troops resent rear-echelon troops; married privates are more likely than single privates to worry about their families back home”; “The Politics of Nostalgia,” the best brief exposé I know of the pretensions of the Buckley-Kirk “new conservatives” to either the noun or the adjective; and a fine deflation of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger as social criticism—and as drama. The five so-so pieces make up section III (“Men and Ideas”) and deal with Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, Bernard DeVoto, Whittaker Chambers, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. They are long—half the book—and disappointing; much intelligent comment but neither the Men nor the Ideas are very interesting.
When he is not confronted with a polemical subject that makes his style taut and forces him to think (which he can do when he has to), Schlesinger likes to slip into something more comfortable. His judgments tend to become official and reverential and to be expressed in the orotundities of the hardened public speaker. The conclusion of his essay on Niebuhr, for instance:
If his searching realism gave new strength to American liberal democracy, or, rather, renewed sources of strength which had been too often neglected in the generations since the American Revolution, his own life and example have shown in compelling terms the possibilities of human contrition and human creativity within the tragedy of history.
The intonations of the fashionable preacher blend into those of the ideological con man—”human contrition” and “the tragedy of history” indeed! The last paragraph of the long piece on DeVoto (and why such labors over that middlebrow?) also makes me queasy:
This was, as DeVoto saw it, the meaning of democracy. And fighting such a battle, DeVoto might have added, vindicates democracy by producing men of compassion, of courage and of faith. These men justify the battle and renew the strength and decency of a civilization. Bernard DeVoto was such a man.
That dying fall! That cant! These qualities are even more pronounced in the remaining essays, which are mostly political. Here the author’s yea-saying, true-believer aspect emerges most clearly.
Schlesinger made his reputation with The Age of Jackson, which I thought at the time turgidly written and structurally confused. But the time was 1946 and the liberals—having just lost Roosevelt and gotten Truman—were understandably worried. The Age of Jackson reassured them: it gave a rosy picture of Jacksonian democracy (myself, I see it as the first big turning-point downward away from our political golden age—the Jefferson-Madison period) and, more important, implied a parallel with the New Deal. The results were a Pulitzer Prize and Schlesinger’s emergence as the scholarly (Professor of History at Harvard) spokesman for what he was later to call, flatteringly, the Vital Center—or, more prosaically, the liberal-Northern wing of the Democratic Party. He became its Virgil—all the more speedily because he was a facile and copious journalist—but a Virgil whose Augustus was in exile. He was active, as speech-writer and adviser, in the 1952 and 1956 Stevenson campaigns, and he wrote his Aeneid: the three-volume The Age of Roosevelt, which provided for future Democratic administrations the same historical-mythological underpinning as the Aeneid, which Virgil hoped “would commemorate the glory of Rome and his friend, the Emperor Augustus, and win back the Roman people to their primitive religion and ancient virtues” (Magill: Encyclopedia of World Authors). Or, as the Encyediaedia Britannica puts it: “The problem was to compose a work of art which should represent a great action of the heroic age and should also embody the most vital ideas and sentiments of the hour.” After his two disappointments with Stevenson, Schlesinger shifted his allegiance to Kennedy some time before the 1960 convention. (I imply no censure: Stevenson was politically dead after 1956 and rightly so: he had trimmed his sails but had capsized anyway.) And so at last, after a decade of frustration, Schlesinger became a Special Assistant, in the White House, to an American President. The present book is mainly interesting for the clues it gives to his political thinking.
The title comes from Emerson, a sage almost everybody but me seems to find sagacious, who, in one of those capsule Gems of Thought he specialized in, saw “mankind” as divided between the party of conservatism-past-memory and the party of innovation-future-hope. If I had to choose between these Procrustean simplicities, I would choose the former. But I don’t have to and so I don’t. Neither does Schlesinger, but he does. His Introduction, which for some reason is not dated “The White House, 1962,” is the triumphal chant of the prophet who, after seven-plus lean years, sees his people liberated from the Egyptian bondage of the Eisenhower administrations:
We no longer seem an old nation, tired, complacent and self-righteous. We no longer suppose that our national salvation depends on stopping history in its tracks and freezing the world in its present mold. Our national leadership is young, vigorous, intelligent, civilized and experimental…. We are Sons of Liberty once again…. We have awakened as from a trance…. The peculiarities of the fifties have almost the air of a forgotten nightmare.
He ends with an Emersonian Gem: “Freedom is inseparable from struggle; it is a process, not a conclusion.”
The first two essays are “On Heroic Leadership and the Dilemma of Strong Men and Weak Peoples” (1960) and “The Decline of Greatness” (1958). The mere titles reveal a yearning which is a bit surprising in such a dedicated liberal and democrat, a desire which one assumes by now has been satiated by the President and his Attorney General who are Heroic Leaders if ever there have been such, willing nay eager to assume “the Promethean responsibility to affirm human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history” and to “combat the infection of fatalism which might otherwise paralyze mass democracy.” My view is that “mass democracy” is as much a contradiction in terms as was Hitler’s “national socialism,” but let it pass as an anarchist vagary. I cannot let pass, however, a sentence on page 17: “While the Executive should wield all his powers under the constitution with energy, he should not be able to abrogate the constitution except in face of war, revolution or economic chaos.” True that the sainted Lincoln did suspend habeas corpus and when the Chief Justice of the United States freed a Southern sympathizer on the ground he had been illegally arrested, kept the prisoner in jail nonetheless, observing, “Justice Tawney has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it”—an aside all too reminiscent of Stalin’s famous query as to how many divisions the Pope commanded. Also true that Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt cut a few corners in wartime—and why is it always the great liberal presidents who do these things? Maybe because they have good consciences, supplied by intellectuals like Mr. Schlesinger. But even a liberal Northern Democrat might be given pause by the above formulation; he might think these wartime abrogations of the constitution were shameful and against his principles; he might remember that, except for Lincoln, no president, even in wartime, has openly “abrogated the constitution,” although our author takes it as a matter of course; and he might also remember that no president so far has abrogated the constitution on the plea of “economic chaos,” and wonder why Schlesinger should give away in advance, nay even suggest, such an invasion of our constitutional rights. In fact, he might have disturbing thoughts about Heroic Leadership and about the part played by liberalistic ideologues like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in justifying such illiberal, not to say unconstitutional, tactics even before the Heroic Leaders themselves have attempted them.
In “Time and the Intellectuals,” Schlesinger sneers at Henry Luce for demanding from writers positive and noncritical attitudes toward American institutions: “Those intellectuals who have faith in Time‘s America and are ready to denounce their colleagues for criticising it are, in Time‘s valuable phrase, Men of Affirmation. The Men of Protest are a disgruntled collection of snobs, grouches and expatriates, grumbling and griping in the outer darkness.” He goes on to speak in eloquent and convincing terms of “the historical role of American intellectuals” as essentially one of protest. He was writing in 1956, when Eisenhower was in the White House, but now we have a different occupant and our author sings a different tune. “We need more people who don’t give a damn and can awaken responses in us,” Schlesinger wrote in 1956. But the basic quality needed to be a Special Assistant to the President is that one does give a damn. I wish my friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who is, as they say, “once you get to know him,” a witty, clever, sensible, and decent fellow, had never gotten involved with high politics.
Letter June 1, 1963