In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

The Hagiography FactoryThomas Meaney

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian 
by Richard Aldous.
Norton, 486 pp., £23.99, November 2017, 978 0 393 24470 0
Show More
Show More

For​ close to half a century, Arthur Schlesinger Jr was perhaps the most recognisable liberal intellectual in America. With his tortoiseshell glasses, bow ties, and neatly stencilled hair, he played for the literary side of Kennedy’s best and brightest, which was meant to balance out the number-crunching prowess of Robert McNamara and the Whiz Kids. In his dozens of books of American history – several of which remain indispensable – Schlesinger was among the chief assemblers of the King James Version of American liberalism. His Cold War manual, The Vital Center, is one of the period’s shrewdest pieces of liberal propaganda. He effectively made the aspirationless politics of the 1950s look like a tough-minded creed that could sustain the faithful through the Cold War. Unlike his kindred spirits in Britain and France – Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron were more formidable thinkers – Schlesinger had a particularly intimate relationship with power. But one of the fascinating paradoxes of Richard Aldous’s biography is how slight Schlesinger’s influence in Washington actually was, despite his own pride in it, when compared to his influence on the American reading public, which he counted for nothing. In his later years, Schlesinger was best known as the custodian of the Kennedy myth, tirelessly springing to the defence of his old patron on the sofas of talk shows and in the letters pages of magazines. What makes Aldous’s book of more than incidental interest during the Trump years, though, is the perspective it provides on the current travails of American liberalism.

Schlesinger was born and bred to be a progressive historian. His parents were outspoken activists and feminists. On his mother’s side, Schlesinger was a Mayflower Wasp who claimed descent from George Bancroft, the Michelet of American historical writing. His father was a Midwest-born social historian with a German-Jewish background, for whom the prairie populism of the turn of the century was still an animating inspiration. Arthur Senior and Elizabeth Schlesinger believed in the political necessity of an educated citizenry and a muscular government that could restrain the market. State education was an article of faith. When the family moved from Ohio to Massachusetts for Arthur Senior to take up a professorship at Harvard, it seems to have genuinely pained him to extract Arthur Junior from his state school, where he was performing poorly, and release him into a feeder academy of the New England elite. It is a feat of restraint that Aldous doesn’t psychologise in his account of Arthur’s teenage years. Over the space of a few pages, we learn that young Arthur chose to follow his father to Harvard, where he lived in the dormitory where Senior was a fellow, enrolled in Senior’s classes and legally changed his middle name from Bancroft to Meier so that he could officially be ‘Junior’. Aldous suggests this last decision ‘reflected the balance of power in the family’, where Schlesinger’s mother ‘was always being put down’.

Arthur Senior did not shirk. He got Junior’s undergraduate thesis published by a reputable house in New York, edited the manuscript, oversaw the index and had a colleague review it for the New York Times. When Junior’s second book, The Age of Jackson, appeared a few years later, Senior successfully pressured his friends on the Pulitzer jury to award it the prize. As Aldous points out, Arthur Senior was outdone by Joseph Kennedy Sr, who not only had JFK’s undergraduate thesis published, but then made While England Slept a bestseller by buying up thousands of copies and stashing them in a Boston warehouse. Like Schlesinger Senior, Kennedy Senior also strongarmed the head of the Pulitzer jury into delivering for his son’s second, ghostwritten book, Profiles in Courage.

Junior was only two years ahead of JFK at Harvard, but despite their shared interest in American lore, they barely knew each other. Kennedy was a rank-and-file FDR supporter as an undergraduate, but Arthur Junior was a Popular Front member of the Communist-controlled American Student Union (contrary to what his own sons indicate in their hyper-filial edition of Schlesinger’s letters). During a year abroad at Cambridge, Schlesinger went on to make several friends and acquaintances on the left, including Eric Hobsbawm. His early work focused squarely on class conflict. In his first academic article, written while he was an undergraduate, he presented the New England Transcendentalist Orestes Brownson as a ‘Marxist before Marx’, claiming that any other theory of class conflict was superfluous in a country which already boasted an analyst who ‘interpreted history in terms of the inescapable conflict between those who profited from the existing order and those on whom its burden chiefly fell’. His book on Andrew Jackson tried to explain why he was not simply the champion of white frontiersmen (one reason his portrait is back up in the Trump White House), but, more important, fought on behalf of downtrodden men in the eastern cities against a National Bank that had been captured by the financial elite (another, disingenuous, reason Trump identifies with him). In an early article on the Civil War, with fresh moral clarity courtesy of the Nazi menace, Schlesinger challenged the widespread liberal view of the day that the war had been about states’ rights, and not about slave owners determined to preserve their human capital. Reading the early Schlesinger is a poignant reminder of how permeable the boundaries between liberalism and socialism still were in America in the late 1930s, and how much Schlesinger took that for granted.

Aldous hints that Schlesinger’s march from liberal progressivism to the liberal centre began during the Second World War. He first worked for the Office of War Information, where he reported on military morale and on race relations in the South, submitting dispatches which he would later regret and paper over in his memoirs. Aldous has gamely dug up some of the more revealing passages (‘The tragedy of the situation is that no improvement would be made by giving more power to the Negro. The southern Negro would abuse power even more than the reactionary southern white … The only hope in the situation lies in activity by the southern liberals, and this hope is scant’). He resigned from the OWI in 1943, along with several others, protesting that it had become nothing more than ‘a glorified advertising agency’, though Republicans were not unjustified in complaining it was a campaign engine for Roosevelt. Following an unhappy spell with nothing to do, a friend of Senior’s brought him on at the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), where he edited the classified magazine Psychological Warfare Weekly. There he witnessed some Soviet espionage firsthand. In an extraordinary episode, Aldous recounts Schlesinger’s discovery that his colleague, Maurice Halperin, had planted a communist Daily Worker story about Bolivian politics in the magazine. It was a sign of Schlesinger’s political alertness that he not only quickly spotted the suspicious material but also showed Halperin that Moscow had actually failed to grasp what was best for the international left (with which Schlesinger still associated himself) on the ground in La Paz. The higher-ups at the OSS did not believe that Halperin was a spy, and Halperin succeeded in demonstrating that Schlesinger’s own sources were Soviet-fed. Junior was reprimanded and given a poor performance report.

It is hard to say how much these wartime intrigues stung him. But by the end of the war he had developed a complicated, market-tested public presence. Schlesinger was still eager for standing among leftish and left-liberal academics and New York intellectuals, but he also yearned for wider popular appeal. In 1946, well before McCarthyism, he published a detailed exposé of the American Communist Party in Henry Luce’s Life magazine. In Schlesinger’s telling, the minuscule communist presence in the country had ballooned into a vast left-wing conspiracy. ‘Communists are working overtime to expand party influence, open and covert, in the labour movement, among Negroes, among veterans and unorganised liberals,’ he wrote. In his quest to find communist moles, he passed on rumours directly to his old bosses at what was now the CIA. (In a move reminiscent of Isaiah Berlin’s academic blackballing of Isaac Deutscher, Schlesinger would later try to out the historian William Appleman Williams as a communist to the president of the American Historical Association.) The Life article cost Schlesinger many of his friends on the left, but it won him new admirers, including the actor Ronald Reagan, who later said Schlesinger’s lurid fresco of the Hollywood communist underworld contributed to his political awakening.

But Schlesinger’s anti-communism during the 1940s was still tempered by a commitment to democratic socialism. In a 1947 symposium on ‘The Future of Socialism’ in the Partisan Review, he made an ardent case for political gradualism, or what he called ‘libertarian socialism’, or, more fumblingly, ‘not undemocratic socialism’. The nub of his argument was that American leftists and communists had wildly inflated the fighting spirit and strategic cunning of the American capitalist class. ‘In fact,’ he wrote, ‘it is in the countries where capitalism really triumphed, it has yielded with far better grace (that is, displayed more cowardice) than the Marxist schema predicted … In the United States an industrialist who turned a machine-gun on a picket line would be disowned by the rest of the business community; in Britain he would be sent to an insane asylum.’ Indeed, Schlesinger looked to Attlee’s Britain as the model for what America could become. Instead of fighting an international war on communism, Schlesinger said that Joseph Kennedy Sr had been right to argue that the Soviet model should be allowed quietly to fail, which in any case would only take a few years in the countries that tried to make a go of it.

Two years later, however, in The Vital Center, Schlesinger had replaced Attlee with Churchill as the saviour of the Liberal International he envisioned. The book showed that Schlesinger’s wish to be a New York intellectual had given way to a desire to make it as a liberal sage. It synthesises the great themes of Cold War liberalism – Arthur Koestler’s image of ‘totalitarian man’, Reinhold Niebuhr’s stress on the fallenness of humanity, Hannah Arendt’s theory of twin totalitarianisms – into an easy-listening orchestral arrangement.

Schlesinger viewed the coming political conformity of the Eisenhower era as the hard-won end of Western civilisation. The ages of Jackson and Roosevelt had been marked by fierce conflict over the levers of control in American society. In both periods, in Schlesinger’s telling, the president was willing to use the full power of the executive to challenge capital interests and intervene in the domestic economy. Though Roosevelt’s New Deal was initially backed by widespread anti-capitalist sentiment, the liberals in power had sensibly restrained their reforms from plunging into utopian upheaval. The great age of liberal political tinkering had begun. Newer and better deals as far as the eye could see. Fair Deal, New Frontier, Great Society, ad infinitum. This was the standard view of the end-of-ideology politics that flourished in the 1950s. Schlesinger’s book drove home three points with startling clarity. First, he advised progressive liberals to cut off contact with the sort of socialist and leftist currents that had nourished their liberalism. Second, he counselled a gentle rapprochement with the ‘non-fascist’ right, who, after all, were only classical liberals coming in from the cold. Third, he showed how to master the rhetoric of what Garry Wills called at the time ‘Bogart liberalism’. He thought American liberals should become ‘hard-boiled’, as opposed to ‘soft’ – like American leftists who had never tested their mettle by wielding power. If you wanted to fight the excesses of capitalism, Schlesinger argued, you didn’t need such weaklings on your side. Soviet communism itself was unmanly to the core, ‘something secret, sweaty and furtive like nothing so much … as homosexuality in a boys’ school’. To be sure, its prissiness should even so be met with the threat of nuclear war.

The tragedy of Arthur Schlesinger is that in the following decades he failed to recognise the political side effects of his legendary ideological manoeuvre. It wasn’t a surprise that as a toughened war veteran in the 1940s, who romanced the responsibility of power, he was attracted to the political arena. He was one of the founders of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), an anti-communist interest group which sought to inoculate American liberalism from its right wing by partly absorbing its conservative programme. Schlesinger realised early on that he was better suited to being a counsellor to princes than a prince himself. His books and journalism had made him famous by his early thirties, but it was his pamphlets and lavish personal letters – to Truman, Lyndon Johnson and other Democratic worthies – that sealed his reputation as a sought-after adviser. By the 1956 presidential election, both contenders for the Democratic nomination – Averell Harriman and Adlai Stevenson – (mis)took him for their confidant. Throughout the 1950s, he saw himself as a latter-day, wised-up New Dealer fighting for the common man against the financial elite. In his diaries, he even claimed the mantle of ‘populism’ for himself and his party. He still understood his duty as a liberal through the prism of class conflict, with redressing economic and racial grievances at the top of the agenda.

What​ seems to have changed all of this was Kennedy. Schlesinger’s relationship to JFK was founded on mutual admiration. During the war Schlesinger had kept tabs on his old classmate, who first achieved celebrity as a war hero in the pages of the New Yorker. Kennedy, in turn, read Schlesinger’s book and articles and sent fan notes. At a dinner party in Washington, Schlesinger was surprised by Congressman Kennedy’s command of foreign affairs, but otherwise found him ‘kind of on the conservative side’. So by the time Schlesinger was recruited by President-Elect Kennedy to serve as his all-round intellectual handyman – speechwriting, ad hoc foreign policy trips, entertainment for Jackie – it was clear to Schlesinger and his fellow liberals that Kennedy was not one of them. For one thing, he was even more fervently anti-communist, and he believed the New Deal agenda had largely exhausted itself. In his diaries Schlesinger appears perpetually worried that he would be cast aside like other progressive liberals in the administration. When Kennedy pushed through the biggest tax cut in a generation, Schlesinger swallowed his dissent. J.K. Galbraith, his close comrade, steadily lost ground to the more enterprising Walter Heller, who perhaps inadvertently helped ease the transition between Keynesianism and the coming era of neoliberalism. ‘Heller, you’ve won,’ Galbraith told him in 1963. ‘The president told me to shut up about my opposition to tax cuts.’ If Kennedy’s star has risen in the historiography over the past few decades, it’s not only because he still figures as a martyred saint for American liberals, but because even some neoconservatives now claim him as their own.

You get a sense of Kennedy’s instincts for delegation when you consider just how much use he got out of Schlesinger – and how well the dividends are still paying. Most of Schlesinger’s time at the White House was spent on foreign affairs. He was regularly sent to South America and Europe to conduct negotiations and gather information for his crisp summary reports to Kennedy. He was also one of the most able defenders of the opening act of the Vietnam War. When Noam Chomsky attacked ‘conformist intellectuals’ who served American power no less faithfully than the commissars did the Kremlin, Schlesinger was one of his prime exhibits. In a highly competitive field, his talent for lying directly to the public was impressive. The method was simple: appeal to the public’s common sense while brazenly withholding facts, even widely available ones. ‘The Vietcong could not possibly be interested in a peace settlement as long as they think they could win the war,’ Schlesinger wrote in 1965, backing a massive escalation in the US bombing campaign at the very moment Hanoi was open to an armistice. In this sense at least, Aldous has chosen an apt subtitle for his biography: Schlesinger was an ‘imperial’ historian in his willingness to take up the burden of the American empire’s PR, though ‘The Imperious Publicist’ would have served just as well.

But the main reason Kennedy recruited Schlesinger was for his prose. ‘When you write the history, Arthur,’ is a refrain in Schlesinger’s JFK chronicles. Aldous reports the interesting fact that Kennedy encouraged competition among his court historians: Schlesinger had to fight it out not only against Kennedy’s main speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, but a handful of lesser writers. The JFK White House was a hagiography factory from the get-go. Intellectuals were back in vogue. Schlesinger brokered lunch between Kennedy and Alfred Kazin (their exchanges appear to have been weightier than the mutual flattery of those between Obama and Marilynne Robinson). But Schlesinger’s main duties kicked in after the assassination. A Thousand Days, Schlesinger’s 1032-page memorial – a page for every day of his service to the presidency – is mostly devoted to JFK’s innovations in the Third World. But the gilding of the myth was already well underway: he shows Jackie with a volume of Proust permanently in hand, while no global current is below the president’s radar. Schlesinger largely succeeded in his task of elevating a relatively minor presidency, at least legislatively, as the natural final panel of the triptych that began with Jackson and Roosevelt.

The one disappointment of Aldous’s biography is that it starts to fall off after Kennedy dies, and Schlesinger becomes the on-call Kennedy consigliere. It is understandable that Aldous does not want to bore us with, say, the endless stand-off between Schlesinger and Seymour Hersh at the gates of Camelot. He continued to be flat-footed in his attacks on student movements, always prescribing bigger doses of liberalism for students in revolt against the cure. He became a critic of the Vietnam War as practised by his friend Henry Kissinger, though he never saw the problem as anything much more than unfortunate ideological excess. At the same time the post-JFK Schlesinger was in some ways a more interesting, and more reflective character. Without Kennedy to seduce him away from his progressivist roots, he returned to form. In the New Republic in the 1970s, he was quick to call out Jimmy Carter’s financialisation agenda as a neoliberal betrayal of the vital centre, Reaganite in all but name. Similarly, he looked with foreboding on one of the neoliberal flagships, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which was launched in the following decade (it did not cross his mind that the DLC was something like the economic complement of the ADA that he himself had helped to found some thirty years before). In the 1990s, Schlesinger settled into a gentle scepticism towards Bill Clinton. While he never saw Clinton’s impeachment hearings as a welcome chance to deal a blow to the imperial presidency – ‘Gentlemen always lie about their sex lives’ – he was repelled by some of the ‘triangulations’ of the sweet-talker of Arkansas. When Clinton pilfered Schlesinger’s famous slogan for his welfare reforms, Schlesinger fired back:

President Clinton, as suggested by his reference to ‘the vital American centre’, is using the phrase in a domestic context. What does he mean by it? His DLC fans probably hope that he means the ‘middle of the road’, which they would locate somewhere closer to Ronald Reagan than to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In my view, as I have said elsewhere, that middle of the road is definitely not the vital centre. It is the dead centre.

The problem was that Schlesinger never considered the possibility that the vital centre had been on life support all along. His great-man version of US history and his aversion to anything that resembled a structural explanation had long blinded him to some of the main contradictions in American postwar liberalism. Perhaps the most salient of these was that the same New Deal order which had attempted to enshrine labour’s ability to bargain with capital was in conflict with the movement to open unions to blacks and others long barred from entry. By the mid-1960s, as Reuel Schiller has persuasively argued, the increasingly open legal conflict between labour and the civil rights movement had started to expose the loose foundation of the postwar American liberal order. When Carter turned his back on the ideal of full employment by the 1970s, rejecting a Congressional bill in support of it, it had become too obvious for even Schlesinger not to notice. He saw Carter’s agenda for what it was: a willingness to let the poor fall by the wayside based on an implacable faith that paying down debt would lift all boats. But Schlesinger – unable to give up his great man schema – still thought the ship could be righted by installing another Kennedy (Teddy) on the throne.

Today there are two stories told about Schlesinger’s disenchantment and his trajectory in the postwar landscape. There are those – George Packer and Co – who argue that Schlesinger became a caricature of the sort of elite figure he had fought in his younger days: the limousine liberal, the cocooned radical, running from fancy party to fancy party on the Upper East Side, losing all touch with America, dissipating himself until only the bow tie remained. Then there are those who say, with Chomsky, that he became so enamoured of power, of his own voice in the king’s ear, that he lost all sense of his principles. He became besotted with power at a time when, unusually, power was besotted with historians. He lost himself in the minutiae of campaigns, elections, reputational indexes and Kennedy Inc. Aldous’s book suggests that neither assessment is satisfactory: Schlesinger’s brand of liberalism withered because its members were determined to end all cross-breeding with ideological formations to their left. These experiments had once made liberalism a flexible and capacious creed. Instead progressive liberals became spongers off their neoclassical relations.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.