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July 12, 2018


And, as Aldous shows, Schlesinger’s case is especially problematic because his prominence and political engagement often diminished his credibility, rendering even the most serious writing suspect. In 1957 a critic used the term “hagiography” to describe Schlesinger’s first book on FDR. Similar assessments, such as “court historian,” would dog Schlesinger for the rest of his life. Christopher Hitchens, for example, described Schlesinger’s book on the Kennedy presidency, A Thousand Days (1965), as “the founding breviary of the cult of JFK.”

Schlesinger wouldn’t, or couldn’t, disprove such characterizations. A Thousand Days offers breathless puerilities that a stern editor would have removed from a high school valedictory speech. Kennedy, we are told, “gave the world for an imperishable moment the vision of a leader who greatly understood the terror and the hope, the diversity and the possibility, of life on this planet and who made people look beyond nation and race to the future of humanity.” Having made the Kennedy family’s political success his abiding concern after Dallas, Schlesinger would later contend that those who thought about Mary Jo Kopechne’s drowning in just the right way would ultimately realize that it was one more reason to vote for Ted Kennedy in a presidential election:

Ever since Chappaquiddick, he has been spending his life trying to redeem himself for those hours of panic. He has become ever more serious, more senatorial, more devoted to the public good. I think this ceaseless effort at self-redemption may be for Teddy Kennedy what polio was for FDR.*

One can be a scholar. One can, out of careerism or conviction, be a publicist. But ultimately one must choose between those professions. The large but finite reservoir of prestige Schlesinger filled as a historian was drained dangerously low by his determination to interpret every political event he commented on as a vindication of liberalism and its leaders. Nor could Schlesinger and his defenders really be surprised, given the frequency and zeal of his advocacy, that the people who came to read his historical writings as part of this life-long political project strongly suspected that the entire oeuvre had the heft and reliability of a collection of press releases.

Read the whole thing. To be fair, Schlesinger’s version of Whig history — that mankind’s tumultuous past was ultimately redeemed by the 20th century arrival of the “Progressives,” the New Deal, FDR, JFK, and the creation of a benign liberal postwar Europe, is much more pleasant than the Black Armband History that the PC left would replace it with by the late 1980s and 1990s.

* Charles Pierce, call your office.