Schlesinger, the last of a breed


March 04, 2007|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,Ideas Editor

For Americans of a certain age, the death last week of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. marked the passing of the last eloquent articulator of America's 20th-century liberal dream, following the departure last May of his good friend John Kenneth Galbraith, a like-minded economist.

A distinguished scholar, Schlesinger painted vast portions of the nation's history with vivid award-winning portraits of populist leaders from Andrew Jackson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Robert F. Kennedy.

In a post-World War II era when Americans were suspicious of liberals with Communist leanings, Schlesinger articulated a muscular anti-Communist version of liberalism as a founder of Americans for Democratic Action.

John F. Kennedy's advisers thought he was too liberal to join the young president's administration, but Kennedy took him on anyway and used him as a link to the left wing of the Democratic Party while profiting from his eloquent articulation of the Kennedy vision.

Schlesinger returned the favor after Kennedy's death with an artful if worshipful book chronicling the martyred president's achievements.

It could be argued that President Lyndon B. Johnson's avid pursuit of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and other landmark pieces of liberal legislation was, at least in part, an effort to prove his virtue to Schlesinger and other liberal Kennedy aides.

Schlesinger advised Robert Kennedy before his tragic death on the campaign trail in 1968 and later scorned Jimmy Carter as too conservative.

In the closing decades of the century, he found himself defending the traditional liberal vision of a melting-pot society against attacks by African Americans and other minorities advocating multiculturalism.

The son of a historian, he viewed the study of history as a powerful tool to steer social progress. He favored pragmatic and moderate leaders who pursued liberal goals thoughtfully.

Active to the end, he disdained the Iraq war in 2005 as a disastrous mess. "I would seize an appropriate moment to declare victory - and cut and run," Schlesinger suggested in a Financial Times opinion piece.

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