The Hagiography Factory

Thomas Meaney

  • Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian by Richard Aldous
    Norton, 486 pp, £23.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 24470 0

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in