Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.
In the desperate Age of Trump, writers, pundits, and reviewers ,who produce book chat, who also consider themselves ‘Liberal’ , ‘Left’ or ‘Progressive‘ are on the hunt for something resembling a Hero. In another desperate time, nearly twenty years ago, that Hero was presented as The Gentleman From New York : Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Biography by
Mr. Marcus reviews Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian by Richard Aldous, but the hero Mr. Marcus was searching for proves to be another political opportunist: the evidence of this is provided by Marcus himself, in Schlesinger’s utterly shabby treatment of both Harriman and Stevenson.
Throughout these years, Schlesinger often hid his political ambitions behind his scholarly bow ties and credentials. But a considerable amount of cunning—and sometimes outright deception—paved his way from Harvard Yard to the White House. When he jumped from Harriman’s sinking ship to Stevenson’s more promising one, he shared, as Aldous tells us, “inside knowledge about Harriman to help Stevenson knock him out of the race.” And when he ditched Stevenson for JFK, he recruited a group of fellow Stevenson intellectuals—John Kenneth Galbraith and Henry Steele Commager among them—to publicly endorse Kennedy and thereby prevent old Adlai from considering a third run.
That Mr. Marcus carefully, but maladroitly launders, as ‘necessary’ to Schlesinger’s power obsession. Earlier in his essay Mr. Marcus styles Schlesinger as a kind of American Carl Schmitt.
The Vital Center was the coded apologetics for the purge of the actual Left from American political life, during the Cold War. The ADA was the vehicle for Liberals like Schlesinger and Niebuhr to proclaim their loyalty to Capitalism: its Free Markets as emancipatory, and its politics Democratic.
Look to the Journals 1952-2000, in the early entries, where Mr. Schlesinger repeats the word ‘commies’ to almost comic effect, except to those victims of McCarthyism, both Party Members and Fellow Travelers. One can also see Mr. Schlesinger appearing in the pages of The Georgetown Set as a perpetual job seeker in the Truman years.
Also look to Richard Fox’s book Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography for Mr. Schlesinger’s ADA accomplice, who propagated the idea of Christian Realism, that among other things rationalized Hiroshima and Nagasaki. J. Edgar Hoover was the supposed reason for Niebuhr’s notorious letter denouncing Communism, and its American Fellow Travelers: as a means out of his describing himself as a Marxient Thinker, and that the Working Class shouldn’t give up on the use of violence, to achieve its ends, both these from 1932, as I recall.
Mr. Marcus provides an informative history of the current Party Line on Schlesinger: his career as Liberal Public Intellectual really began to take national shape when he became a New Frontier poodle.
Mr. Marcus’ tale ends with Mr. Schlesinger becoming “the swinging soothsayer” as described by Time Magazine. Gore Vidal once described Time Magazine as the fictional lives of real people. As the reader of his Journals will attest, Schlesinger was an inveterate name dropper, and a social butterfly to point of producing ennui in the reader. But for those readers, with an appetite for tedium, can recall Mr. Schlesinger opining in his Journal, that he gave up metaphysics for the consolations of the dry martini: that he stole from Robert Benchley.