Skip to main content

Scholar-Politicians and Sheriffs


ISSUE:  Spring 1979
Robert Kennedy and His Times. By Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Houghton Mifflin. $19.95

Months before its release, long before the reviews were assigned or the store copies ordered, the book world knew that Robert Kennedy and His Times was going to be the political book of 1978.Its subject was, on the tenth anniversary of his murder, still controversial; so, for that matter, was its author, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The book’s price, it was said, would be as audacious ($19.95) as its pretension: to portray Robert Kennedy as nothing less than Emerson’s “representative man” of his age.

All this seemed to guarantee that when the book came out, it would generate a storm—a “firestorm,” as we now say—of contention in the literary pages of the better periodicals: strong-minded reviews, both pro and con, followed by even stronger letters to the editor, rejoinders from the critics, and so on through Christmas at the very least. But it never happened. The jury returned with something approaching a unanimous verdict: yes, they chorused, the book was a good read, and yes, it was at least plausible in its noble portrayal of Robert in the years after his brother’s assassination, but, damn it all, did Arthur really have to write a new gospel that was as uncritical of his hero as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were of theirs? Marshall Frady, writing in The New York Review of Books, stated the consensus as well as anyone:

“It is a work, assuredly, not without dimensions of majesty, not only prodigious in its research, but with a mounting, tidal dramatic movement. . .[But it displays] an indiscriminate defensiveness, the strenuous deferentiality of an infatuation which, given the harsher aspects of Robert Kennedy’s nature, is somehow oddly unbecoming and embarrassing in so distinguished and magisterially endowed a historian.” With Schlesinger’s personal attachments to the Kennedys in mind (he served as a special assistant to President John Kennedy and has remained a close friend of the family), Frady suggested that the book’s failings “would even intimate something of that special susceptibility in scholars to being mesmerized by power when they have drifted too near to its tremendous workings—more often than not, something peculiar seems to happen to them.”

I don’t have a whole lot to add to this assessment (except, perhaps, one bit of practical advice: If you are set on reading Robert Kennedy and His Times, consider skipping the early chapters, particularly those in which Schlesinger tries to paint brightly the years Kennedy spent in the employ of Senator Joseph McCarthy and in pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa; the book gets considerably better as it goes along). But I do question the assumptions that underlie the critical reaction, especially as those assumptions have been extended from Schlesinger and politics in particular to intellectuals and politics in general.

The reason Schlesinger was hit so hard (after all, books of tribute or polemic are published and praised every day, often for their very sharpness of argument) seems not so much to have been that he is Schlesinger as that he is an intellectual— more precisely, an intellectual who broke the rules. Historians who make history are condemned nowadays as roundly as if they were, say, criminologists who committed crimes. The watchword of the intellectual, the social as well as the natural scientist, is supposed to be “objectivity”: his proper home, it is argued, is the ivory tower which, standing as it does above and apart from the fray, both offers and requires detachment of those who would view the world from within it. Schlesinger, in a 1963 Foreign Affairs essay on “The Historian and History,” portrayed the current wisdom as follows: The historian’s is “a quasi-priestly vocation, supposed to liberate him from the passions of his day, to assure him a serenity of perspective and to consecrate him to the historian’s classical ideal of objectivity. . . . To act is, in many cases, to give hostages—to parties, to policies, to persons,” Indeed, for some, “their histories became the servant of their loyalties.”

Schlesinger himself thought of this wisdom as an argument to be gotten around; the advantages of political involvement, he felt, far outweighed the risks.”To take part in public affairs, to smell the dust and sweat of battle, is surely to stimulate and amplify the historical imagination.” Involvement in events also gives scholars an appreciation for their complexity: “I shudder a little when I think how confidently I have analyzed decisions in the ages of Jackson and Roosevelt.” Equally important, the intellectual can help inform policy: “I have no doubt at all that the significant statesman must have a knowledge of history, an instinct for the grand tendencies, a feeling for the direction in which the world is moving.”

Schlesinger was telling us, then, that a marriage of intellectuals and politics can produce both better scholarship and better government. Further on, I intend to argue that he is right—within limits. But for the moment, we must deal with the irony of Schlesinger’s own career, a career that illustrates better than anything else what those limits are and the conditions under which they are likely to be exceeded.

Perhaps it was foreordained that Schlesinger would stretch, then break all the rules, good and bad. For if his father, Arthur, Sr., was the model of disinterested historiography as practiced in the 20th century, so was his mother’s ancestor, George Bancroft, the epitome of the Jacksonian activist historian of the 19th. Arthur, Jr., drew from both wells.”You could picture him sitting on his father’s knee enunciating truths about Populism,” said family friend Mary McCarthy; yet, reflected the Bancroft descendant, “I was always less detached and judicious than my father, more eager for commitment and combat.”

At age 17, Schlesinger enrolled at Harvard, where his work was such that his honors thesis on antebellum New England editor Orestes Brownson was released a year after graduation as a book. The next seven years were spent in Cambridge, England, Cambridge, Mass., and (during the war) Washington, working on what would become The Age of Jackson.Published in 1946, the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning book was representative of all that was to follow—diligently researched, energetically written, and rankly partisan. Many regarded Schlesinger’s economic interpretation (he argued that the Jackson era should be understood in terms of class rather than sectional conflict) as an effort to lend unwarranted historical inevitability to the New Deal. As Richard Hofstadter pointed out, Andrew Jackson had wished “to divorce government and business,” not, as New Dealers did, to promote “governmental ascendancy over the affairs of business.”

Still, whether as a work of academic scholarship or Democratic partisanship, The Age of Jackson quickly won Schlesinger honors in both worlds—on the one hand an offer, gratefully accepted, to become one of the youngest associate professors ever at Harvard; on the other, various consulting posts with the Truman Administration and a charter membership in the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. During the 1950’s, while staying active in Democratic and A. D. A. circles, he wrote the first three volumes of The Age of Roosevelt.Like their predecessor, they were best-sellers; like it, too, they suffered from an effusive partisanship. Yet the books were major works of scholarship; say what you would about Schlesinger at this stage in his career, there was no challenging the quickness of his mind, the artfulness of his writing, or the thoroughness of his research.

Schlesinger was by decade’s end one of America’s best-known intellectuals. He also was a constituent of Senator John F. Kennedy, who courted him assiduously prior to the 1960 presidential campaign in hope that Schlesinger would help break Adlai Stevenson’s hold on the academy. He was not disappointed; though Schlesinger admitted to being “nostalgically for Stevenson” and “ideologically for Humphrey,” he was “realistically for Kennedy.” His role in the campaign was minor, but his presence quieted a lot of anti-Kennedy fears among liberal intellectuals. Shortly after the 1961 inauguration, Kennedy made him a special assistant; again, his specific tasks were few, his symbolic value great. One such task may have made him wary of asking for others; after the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was told to lie to reporters, whom he had criticized in the Foreign Affairs article for getting their facts wrong, about the number of troops involved.”Either you get out or you play the game,” he later explained ruefully. Shortly after the assassination, neglected by Lyndon Johnson and unable to play any longer, he got out.

By his own standards—the standards set forth in his 1963 essay—Schlesinger’s marriage of intellect and politics must be judged a failure. There is precious little evidence that his historian’s wisdom had any appreciable effect on policy, as he had predicted it would; the memos that cascaded from his remote White House office (Schlesinger had been symbolically stashed in an East Wing corner, near the social secretary and correspondence section) were, in a colleague’s assessment, “beautiful, witty, masterfully written,” and generally ignored. Nor, judging from the books Schlesinger has written since leaving the administration in 1964, did his involvement improve his subsequent scholarship—quite the opposite, in fact. A Thousand Days, Schlesinger’s “personal memoir” of the Kennedy years, showed little of the appreciation for complexity that his essay had claimed would result from such involvement; instead, it reduced those days to a morality play pitting the Forces of Darkness against King John and his Knights of the Rose Garden. His book, Kennedy aide Theodore Sorenson observed, with uncommon wryness, “justifies J. F. K.’s decision to have his own historian in the White House.”

A Thousand Days appeared in 1965; the years since have produced similarly devoted works, completing Schlesinger’s transition from partisan yet rigorous scholar to professional Kennedy apologist. Having defended the Vietnam war so long as it was Kennedy’s war (in 1961, Schlesinger recommended aid to President Diem; as late as 1965, he was still on board), he subsequently wrote a book called The Bitter Heritage that pinned the blame for it on everyone but. Having helped to create the “imperial presidency” through his glowing biographies of Jackson and Roosevelt and through passages like this one from A Thousand Days (“Thinking of the young Roosevelts, lost suddenly in middle age, and of the young Kennedys, so sure and purposeful, one perceived . . .a dynastic change, like the Yorks giving way to the Tudors”), Schlesinger wrote a book attacking the institution as manned by Kennedy’s successors. Now, having named a son after Robert Kennedy and dedicated a book to his memory (The Crisis of Confidence),Schlesinger has written the fawning Robert Kennedy and His Times and dedicated it to Ethel Kennedy and other family members.(“Schlesinger has become the ultimate contemporary historian,” quipped Eugene McCarthy in November, 1978.”He wrote about the age of Jackson after it happened, the age of Roosevelt while it happened, and the age of Kennedy before it happened.”)

In Schlesinger’s case, then, the intellectual costs of political involvement outweighed the benefits. But if the current wisdom is correct in its evaluation of Schlesinger, it is wrong in the fundamental assumptions about intellectuals and politics on which it rests. It is wrong in assuming that the ivory tower is a fount of objectivity, and it is wrong in arguing that scholarly involvement in politics is necessarily bad for scholarship. Abstinence from the “real world” poses threats to intellectual understanding as great as those born of excessive involvement.

Let’s begin with the ivory tower itself. Its much-touted advantage, as we saw earlier, is its walls, walls that supposedly foster the free genesis and flow of ideas within by keeping out the small, everyday problems and prejudices that mire down the rest of humanity. As it happens, though, those walls lock in some home-grown problems and prejudices. For purposes of illustration, I will cite two.

The first is born of academic careerism, particularly as it is shaped by the institution of tenure. It seems to be a universal condition of humankind that people are most likely to be innovative and iconoclastic when they are young. Ironically, academia, for all its unique claims to freedom of thought, stifles that impulse as few other institutions do. Because young scholars do not have tenure, writes Mark Nadel in The Washington Monthly, “ they are totally vulnerable [when they advance fresh ideas], especially because they may be judged by those same professors whose views they are challenging. Particularly in the humanities and social sciences, arcane theories and methodologies are embraced with all the passion and myopia of the American Legion holding forth on the Panama Canal,” and “differences in dogma are commonly regarded as considerations of merit.”

Second, in addition to restraining the ideas of junior scholars to those of their seniors, the ivory tower, more than most environments, allows intellectuals to become prisoners of their own ideas as well. Even Albert Einstein fell prey to dogma, as Robert Jastrow showed in a recent New Yorfc Times Magazine article. Shortly after World War I, it seems, two scientists working independently—William de Sitter’ of Holland and Alexander Friedmann, a Russian—found solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity that suggested that the universe was expanding. This was all to the greater glory of Einstein—they were, after all, his equations—but he did not see it that way. He wrote a curiously peevish letter to de Sitter (“This circumstance of an expanding universe is irritating”); Friedmann he ignored as best he could. Years later, confronted with photographic evidence, Einstein at last was persuaded. Why did it take him so long? Because, Jastrow found, the idea of an expanding universe originating in a “big bang” implied a moment of creation much like that described in Genesis. Einstein’s own notions of God explicitly excluded the idea of a Creator or Prime Mover, and he just would not believe anything that could be taken as evidence to the contrary. I cite the example of Einstein because it is extreme; in the social sciences, where photographic or any other kind of evidence seldom proves anything, scholars not only fall into mental prisons of their own devising, but rarely break out.

In sum, deliberate disinvolvement is as flawed a nexus between intellectuals and politics (or any other worldly activity) as Schlesinger-style co-optation. Is there, then, any form of involvement by intellectuals in politics that we should encourage? Yes, if it is truly politics in which they are involved. Though we can well do without the so-called “scholar-statesman” who rises by hitching his wagon to some prince’s star, we need as seldom before scholar-politicians who are willing to get their hands dirty in the precinct caucuses, state legislatures, and other forums of uniquely democratic politics. Such activity will produce intellectuals who have forged the indispensable link that Clinton Rossiter wrote about and that most intellectuals and politicians lack—the link between political reason (“tested reason—reason applied within the limits of history”) and political experience (“digested experience—experience appraised with the aid of critical intelligence”). They will be intellectuals whose power in government is independent save for the voters, not derivative from some patron; thus, they will be able to speak their knowledge honestly, without fear of banishment from court. And they will be intellectuals who, when they go back to the ivory tower, can air out some academic prejudices born of isolation without introducing new ones born of co-optation; for it is those involved personally in politics and government who have the greatest stake of all in developing an accurate, even clinical understanding of how the system really works.

Compare if you will the two generations of intellectuals described below. The first quotation, from David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, describes Vice President Johnson’s reaction to his first meeting with President Kennedy’s cabinet:

“Stunned by their glamour and intellect, he had rushed back to tell [Speaker of the House] Sam Rayburn, his great and crafty mentor, about them, about how brilliant each was, that fellow Bundy from Harvard, Rusk from Rockefeller, McNamara from Ford. On he went, naming them all. ‘Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, ’ said Rayburn, ‘but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once, ‘”

” ‘When the American Revolution broke, ’ Admiral Morison has reminded us, ‘it was led by scholars.’ Scholars wrote the Constitution; indeed, three-fifths of the membership of the Constitutional Convention of 1787—an astonishing proportion at that time—had gone to one of the colonial colleges or to a comparable institution abroad. Franklin was a leading scientist. Hamilton, Madison and Jay expounded the most serious political thought of the times in the Federalist Papers without for a moment renouncing party conflict or turning their backs on power. Adams and Jefferson, successive presidents, conducted in their long correspondence an astute and sustained discussion of the principles of government not likely to be matched, for example, by the Johnson-Nixon letters. The men who organized the struggle for independence and created the new republic were politician-intellectuals, capable at the same time of the most realistic political maneuver and of the most recondite intellectual analysis.”

The author of the second quotation was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. It almost makes you wish that he, like the intellectuals who preceded him by 200 years, had just once run for something. Even sheriff.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading