The White House Mythmaker

How Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s heroic vision of American presidents led him, and the country, astray

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew*

The Founders did not envision a presidential cult of personality, but an unhappy paradox of American democracy is the sovereignty that politicians hold over the public that elects them. This sway has never been more evident than now, when tens of millions of us begin each day by reaching for our phone, skimming through our news feeds, or otherwise plugging into a communal presidential drama—pulled into the vortex, whether we like it or not. This isn’t Donald Trump’s fault. He may be finding new avenues of access, but he didn’t invent the strange intimacy of leader and led that has become a feature, not a bug, of the American system. “Presidential primacy, so indispensable to the political order, has turned into presidential supremacy,” the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote 44 years ago in The Imperial Presidency, coining the term we all still use.

Schlesinger has a lot to teach us and deserves fresh attention today. No other writer did so much to shape our idea of the presidency—as an office, as an institution, as an incarnation of popular consciousness. His many books may be out of fashion, but the terms he popularized remain part of our common vocabulary. Among them were also judicial activism, unilateralism, and the politics of hope. This last is usually identified with Barack Obama, but it was the title of Schlesinger’s first essay collection, published in 1963, when Schlesinger the Harvard professor had become the in-house chronicler of John F. Kennedy’s administration.

The assumption, on both sides, was that Kennedy would prove to be a pivotal, larger-than-life president, following the examples of Andrew Jackson (the subject of Schlesinger’s celebrated 1945 revisionist history) and FDR (the hero of his three masterly volumes that came out between 1957 and 1960). As it turned out, A Thousand Days (1965), his gigantic inside account, not only added luster to Kennedy, but also transformed Schlesinger. The best-selling academic became a full-scale celebrity. His image—pursed lips and thinning hair, owlish horn-rims and floppy bow tie—stared out in a pastel portrait from the cover of Time in the same week that the British film goddess Julie Christie adorned the cover of Newsweek, as Richard Aldous notes in his new biography, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian.

How to assess Schlesinger’s trajectory? Aldous, who teaches history at Bard College, frames the question bluntly: “Was he a great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix? Or was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the Establishment that nurtured his career?” Actually, this either/or doesn’t quite get at the problem. Schlesinger’s debt to the establishment, or to several establishments—Harvard (where his father taught history before him), the inside-the-Beltway power elite, the Manhattan literary orbit—was never in doubt. Nor was his embrace of the ideas and beliefs that bound those worlds together. The more important question is whether Schlesinger’s work still matters, and if so, why.

A biographer must track his quarry through a telling of the life, or in this case a retelling, since Schlesinger was a diligent self-chronicler, first in his memoir, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950, and then in his giant Journals, 1952–2000, published soon after his death, at 89, in 2007. (Reviewers savored the consecutive diary entries on the Monroe Doctrine and Marilyn Monroe.) Six years later we got the copious Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (2013), with their not-so-innocent stroking of the mighty (“Dear Jackie,” “Dear Lyndon,” etc.).

Aldous draws on all this, plus some new material, including unpublished correspondence and diaries. He has also interviewed Schlesinger’s wives, Marian Cannon and Alexandra Emmet, and the children of those two marriages. The result is a very readable distillation of a long and fruitful life. There were many highs: Schlesinger’s seasons at Harvard (where “young Arthur” absorbed his father’s theory of shifting “tides of national politics”—alternating periods of liberal and conservative dominance—and then joined him on the faculty), his devoted service to the Kennedys, his later years in Manhattan as a socialite and a literary eminence. And there were lows: a dreary wartime interval in the Office of Strategic Services, a stormy first marriage, a lengthy and unhappy term as villain to the New Left.

But Schlesinger wasn’t just a famous man. First and foremost he was a serious historian. And that, oddly, is the subject on which Aldous has the least to say. He summarizes the oeuvre and provides a scorecard of contemporary reviews. But he skims the surface of the Faustian bargain Schlesinger made with power and goes light, too, on his ideas and arguments. Often Aldous seems less stimulated than embarrassed by his subject. “Here is not the place to engage with the historiographical debates that would surround The Age of Jackson throughout the rest of the twentieth century and beyond,” he writes. But where is the place to engage with Schlesinger’s interpretation of presidential influence and impact, introduced in its fullness in that precocious early book, if not in a biography plainly meant to revive Schlesinger’s reputation, or at least come to terms with his legacy?

Like many other professional historians of his era, Schlesinger was slow to grapple with the injustices of race in America and the shocking facts of the American Indians’ removal. But for its time, his perspective was rare in its breadth and its emphasis on working-class sensibilities. From the beginning, Schlesinger wrestled with the contradictions of the American presidency, an office with clear political limits (set forth in the Constitution) but horizonless influence over the cultural life of the country. He explored them first as a scholar and later as a front-row observer and now-and-again participant. And he did so during the peak of the Cold War, when America offered itself to the world as an empire that was also a beacon of democracy. It was, in fact, the two in combination that excited Schlesinger’s imagination, even as that vision led him astray.

As America stood on the threshold of the Cold War, the prevailing idea, or belief, was that the country was a God-favored vessel set on an exceptional course. Schlesinger demurred. America’s future, like its past, he said, depended on illustrious actors who strode onto the historical stage bringing a message of liberation and change. This was a bold thesis in 1945. The latest gallery of “great men” included not only FDR (recently deceased) and his ally Churchill (driven from power), but also Hitler and Mussolini as well as Stalin, who was very much alive, gobbling up Eastern and Central Europe and subjugating its peoples. The world had seen quite enough of dynamic leadership.

But Schlesinger wanted to show that American history was written by virtuous giants who promised and delivered ever more democracy. Not power-hungry Caesars or quasi-religious charismatics, such figures were, as he went on to write, “Promethean” liberators, exemplars of “heroic leadership” who released “new forces, new energies, new values.” Contrary to recent criticism, Schlesinger’s portrait of Jackson is not, in fact, a hagiography. Much of the time, Jackson disappears as Schlesinger re-creates the era’s debates over currency and bank charters and describes the rise of commoners of every variety. Jackson turned on the spigot and democracy flowed, in all its throbbing intensity of movement and change.


To make this case, Schlesinger had to assimilate whole areas of 19th-century democracy—city and state politics; banking, commerce, and labor; publishing and journalism; the cost of meat and coal; the cultures of pamphleteering and soapbox oratory; the “ambiguities” of common law and the reform of the judicial system. He swirled it all into a narrative and captured the mood of the Jacksonian revolution. At 28, Schlesinger was a plausible heir to Henry Adams, the original genius of American historiography.

In one sense he fulfilled this promise. His output was prodigious, and in no way slowed by celebrityhood: one major book after another, each encyclopedic in its learning and written with a stylist’s natural verve and a 19th-century novelist’s devotion to scenery and character. And while he liked being successful, he wasn’t dazzled by the prizes (a Pulitzer, his first, for the Jackson book) and fame. Nor did he lose intellectual ambition or seriousness. For Schlesinger, the problem originated in his own great-man theory, and in his eagerness to be more than a sideline witness when America was emerging as a historic empire.

As he developed his idea of the Promethean hero of democracy, he searched for real-life examples in his own moment. The crucial years in his life, from the beginning of the Cold War through the Vietnam debacle, were spent in pursuit of rare men who would seize command of the “cycles of history” and prolong the liberal age, before the pendulum swung back, as it eventually must, to the right. The quest was on even when no such men were in sight. Schlesinger’s vivid polemic The Vital Center, published in 1949, tried to elevate the “little man” Harry Truman into a kind of bantam greatness, by translating Truman’s bluster into a higher ethic of responsibility. The collective heroes now were anti-Communist liberals, tough-guy “doers” who repudiated left-wing sissies, the “doughface progressives … the sentimentalists, the utopians, the wailers.”

After Truman came another would-be Prometheus, Adlai Stevenson. Schlesinger wrote so many speeches for him, in his 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, that Schlesinger’s own voice lost its suppleness. In sermons published in magazines but better suited to the convention hall, he called for a president who would “affirm human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history.” Schlesinger at last found, he thought, the true Prometheus in John Kennedy. Or rather, they found each other. The popular notion of Schlesinger as lapdog to Kennedy gets the dynamic wrong. When the two first met, at a dinner party at Joseph Alsop’s Georgetown house in 1946, Schlesinger—whose The Age of Jackson went into eight printings in eight months—was the more imposing figure. JFK, not yet even a member of the House of Representatives, was a lightweight and a playboy. Schlesinger, like many others, didn’t take him seriously. It was Kennedy who cultivated Schlesinger, asking for help on Profiles in Courage. And Schlesinger was won over—and eventually besotted.

With the 1960 election, the democratic revolution could be renewed. No less than Jackson, JFK was an outsider—a Boston Catholic who had toppled a barrier of bigotry. At the same time, he was a man of ideas and words, attracted to intellectuals, in particular Harvard men like himself. The pioneer trail of the New Frontier might be blazed on the Boston–Washington shuttle. Schlesinger’s name was even bruited for national-security adviser—creating Cold War policy in, as JFK put it, the “twilight struggle.” That job went to another Kennedy “Harvard,” McGeorge Bundy. Schlesinger brushed aside an ambassadorship—presumably too far from the action—but when Robert F. Kennedy suggested that he work in the White House, Schlesinger leaped. “No professional historian in all our history has ever been privileged to see events from this vantage point,” he told Harvard’s president, Nathan Pusey. The perils of compromised neutrality, or worse, seem not to have occurred to him, probably because he felt as much author as observer of Kennedy’s promise. The president, with a politician’s shrewdness, saw more clearly how the bargain worked, accurately guessing that his reputation “was safe in Arthur’s hands,” Aldous drily observes.

Yet Aldous is surprisingly uncritical of the “Harvards” in power. Schlesinger himself wasn’t very critical of them either. But he was an excellent observer, and a fine writer, and the truth seeped into the corners of his accounts. Read A Thousand Days along with the Journals, and you feel the Promethean grandeur grow darker. When Bundy said to Kennedy, shortly into the administration, “Do you realize that you are surrounded by five ex-professors?,” he “brought down the house,” Schlesinger wrote in his journal. But that hilarity came during the Bay of Pigs fiasco—one of the ghastliest blunders of the Cold War. Schlesinger, whose many areas of expertise included Latin America, knew the Cuba operation was a “terrible idea.” Still, he accepted Robert Kennedy’s admonition to keep his misgivings to himself, lest he undermine the president’s confidence. He also accepted the job of persuading his former hero Stevenson, now the ambassador to the United Nations, to stiffen his spine like a “good soldier” and “make the best possible U.S. case” to the UN.

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Schlesinger compromised himself further during the post–Bay of Pigs mop-up and left the unpleasant facts out of A Thousand Days. Defending the book against accusations that he gave away too much about the inner workings of the Kennedy administration, he quoted the English journalist and political theorist Walter Bagehot: “When a historian withholds important facts likely to influence the judgment of his readers, he commits a fraud.” But that’s just what Schlesinger did when he sanitized his own doings. His memo “Protection of the President,” outlining a strategy of deception in advance of the Cuba invasion, came to light only when it was declassified. “When lies must be told, they should be told by subordinate officials,” Schlesinger had counseled. He also suggested foisting the blame for the Cuban debacle onto the CIA and its “errant idealists and soldiers-of-fortune working on their own.” Schlesinger’s experiences in the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA, as well as in the Office of War Information, were a handy primer in the techniques of propaganda and misinformation. He also knew that the CIA really had carried out some of its worst rampages under Kennedy.

Aldous treats these later revelations as a red-faced moment for Schlesinger. But they raised disturbing questions. For one, how had a serious scholar worked himself into a place where the public history he wrote was undermined by his own secret writings? For another, how much mischief was he responsible for as a starry-eyed mythologist of the “strong president”? The Imperial Presidency was Schlesinger’s implicit answer. That the book was really an act of atonement was clear in its method and its message: the rigorous constitutionalism; the well-documented case studies; the chastened admission that the democratically minded Prometheus, the leader with his almost-mystical hold on the public, could be a danger in his own right—not Caesar, but a cowboy or a wild man, swinging his torch in any direction he liked, taking “unto himself the final judgments of war and peace.”

The hidden costs of power also emerged in his elegiac Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), with its pained acknowledgment that Kennedy’s attempt “to bridge the great schisms—between white and nonwhite, between affluent and poor, between age and youth, between the old and the new politics, between order and dissent, between the past and the future”—had ended in his own murder. RFK’s grand mission thus fulfilled the kind of ancient formula, in this case of the charismatic leader sacrificed to his cause, that Schlesinger’s historical program for the United States had once so buoyantly defied. His manifesto The Disuniting of America (1991) was equally bracing, though its critique of the “politics of identity” and the “tribal antagonisms” it bred should have included a harder look at his own privileged tribe, its delusions as well as its prejudices and presumptions. Nevertheless, the book is among his most prescient. By this time, Schlesinger’s own “politics of hope” seemed all but exhausted. It is this pessimistic Schlesinger who speaks to us today, quite as Henry Adams does, as a historian whose vast knowledge carries the stern message of prophecy.

* Illustration photo credits: Bettmann; Photoquest; Hulton Deutsch; Kean Collection; H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock; The Boston Globe; The Denver Post; Getty

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