The High Table Liberal

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Alexandra and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. at Tavern on the Green, New York City, May 1987; photograph by Ron Galella

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. loved American politics. Nominating conventions thrilled him. Late-night schmoozing on the campaign trail was hard to beat. “I must say,” he wrote in his journal in 1960, “that I adore sitting around hotel rooms with politicians and newspapermen exchanging gossip over drinks.” Some of the precincts he frequented were seriously glamorous. (Also from his journal, about a giant Adlai Stevenson rally at the old Madison Square Garden in 1952: “Lauren Bacall hailed me excitedly…her voice quivering with feeling, ‘Arthur, did you read Walter Lippmann’s column this morning?’”) But Schlesinger delighted in the humblest political rites—whistle-stop speeches at the crack of dawn, hack-filled Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners—with what he called their mixture of “corny pontifical introductions, wisecracks and seriousness.”

Today the midcentury American liberalism that Schlesinger defended and in large measure defined seems as antiquated as whistle-stops and Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. About thirty years ago, most liberal politicians and intellectuals (though not Schlesinger) dropped the toxic “L-word,” denigrated by the left as well as the right, and began calling themselves “progressives,” which had been a decidedly antiliberal term of the left. With fewer people rising to claim or even describe its principles, and with the Democratic Party reduced to a congeries of special interests, liberalism lost its élan and came to be redefined by its political enemies.

Now, a decade after his death, Schlesinger’s liberalism, in a remarkable convergence of radical left and radical right, is widely regarded as the politics of a decadent, self-enraptured, war-mongering globalist establishment that long ago abandoned the working class and the poor. Known in left-wing circles as “neoliberalism”—once a precise term in economic theory defining Thatcherism that has morphed into a sweeping pejorative against liberals, progressives, and European social democrats not of the hard left—this caricature stoked rage at both ends of the spectrum in last year’s election and had a lot to do with the victory of Donald J. Trump.

In view of this recent history, the subtitle of Richard Aldous’s otherwise solid biography is misleading as well as erroneous. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was in no way an “imperial” historian; he was an anti-imperial historian. He created no empire of academic acolytes. Nor did he write of the United States as an empire. He did title one of his finest books The Imperial Presidency, but this was a warning about the dangers of unchecked executive power. Aldous might have better described him as a democratic historian (or even, given his partisan loyalty, a Democratic historian), although that would have elided his elite associations and his old-school, martini-at-lunch, Century Club style. Schlesinger is best described as a liberal historian; he was a leading member of an outstanding generation of liberal historians that included Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann…

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