The Schlesinger Thesis
Once upon a time, the books of the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. were worth reading. In The Vital Center (1949), for instance, he spoke with a fog-cutting scorn of those “progressives” who still clung to the miasmic dreams of the 1930’s and were still blind, in consequence, to Soviet imperialism and the malevolence of the American Communist party. The modern liberalism which he represented was much more tough-minded. Thanks to a “restoration of radical nerve,” he explained, in words that revealed how much he owed to the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr, modern liberalism recognized the complexity of reality, the ineradicable sinfulness of human nature, the corruptive consequences of power, the narrow possibilities of all historical endeavor, the virtues of gradualism, and the horror inherent in every form of totalitarianism.
Today, having lost his nerve and so much else, Schlesinger speaks of the United States and the Soviet Union in the same breath as “international menaces,” acting out fantasies of “innate superiority.” In the American case, Schlesinger argues in his new book, The Cycles of American History,1 a messianic dream of America as the redeemer nation has flowed into the vacuum created in the national mind by the erosion of our sense of history and its attendant consciousness that all secular communities are finite and flawed. So far as interest and knowledge are concerned, we have become “an essentially historyless people,” the author of Cycles complains. “Businessmen agree with the elder Henry Ford that history is bunk. The young no longer study history. Academics turn their back on history in the enthusiasm for the ahistorical behavioral ‘sciences.’”
Precisely which contemporary businessmen the professor has in mind, he does not say—for the simple reason that he hasn’t any; in characterizing their attitude by reference to a drearily familiar wisecrack tossed off by an automobile tycoon born in 1863, Schlesinger is not telling us something he has actually learned about executives in Lee Iacocca’s Detroit and elsewhere; to the contrary, he is merely indulging an animus, on the flip side of which can be found, not incidentally, a striking tendency to worship men of inherited wealth, such as Averell Harriman, to whom Cycles is dedicated. “‘My father always told me that businessmen were sons-of-bitches,’” the author of Cycles remembers John F. Kennedy saying in 1962, at the time of the young President’s wage-price battle with the steel companies, and the relish with which Schlesinger repeats that unlovely epithet testifies to his own belief in its applicability to the social class in question.
But what is even more revealing about Schlesinger than his willingness to rely on prejudice instead of evidence in his judgment of businessmen is his unwillingness to engage in self-criticism while lamenting the current state of affairs in academia. For although there is truth in his assertion that students nowadays have a diminished interest in history and that many scholars prefer to work in the behavioral sciences, he need not have turned to grandiosely vague allusions to a national “tradition” of “narcissistic withdrawal from history” in order to account for these developments. More modestly and more usefully, he might have begun by asking whether the faded appeal of history in our colleges and universities is not the result of intellectual disorder in the historical profession, and from there he might have proceeded to take a hard look at his own special field of 20th-century American political history, which has declined to the point where senior-faculty positions in the field have gone unfilled at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and other institutions, for want of candidates who have proved themselves as scholars. How, and when, and why, did the discipline fall into such woeful difficulty? Conceivably, the author of Cycles could have filled at least a chapter with enlightening answers to these questions, except that doing so would have required him to rethink his most cherished assumptions about the American past.
The academicians who came to dominate 20th-century American political history in the decade and a half after World War II—Schlesinger at Harvard, Walter Johnson at the University of Chicago, Eric Goldman at Princeton, Frank Freidel at Stanford and Harvard, John Morton Blum at MIT and Yale, and William Leuchtenburg at Columbia may be taken as gifted representatives of the type—were men who had grown up during the New Deal and had been indelibly marked by their enthusiasm for it. Some of them, indeed, became personally involved in liberal politics. Walter Johnson played a role in persuading the Hamlet-like governor of Illinois to run for President, a feat which he later described in How We Drafted Adlai Stevenson (1955). Among Schlesinger’s many engagé acts was his work as a speech-writer for Stevenson. Leuchtenburg held directorial posts both in New England and New York with the liberal pressure group, Americans for Democratic Action, and with New York’s Liberal party as well. Goldman, in the fullness of time, would serve as a special consultant in Lyndon Johnson’s White House.
Much more significant, though, is the fact that fond memories of FDR constricted the sense of history of this group of historians, whether they concentrated on the boom-and-bust years between the world wars, or on the era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, or attempted to cover the whole first half of the century. In the collective view of these chroniclers, the most exciting way to tell the story of 20th-century America was to orchestrate it around what they regarded as the intermittent triumph of presidentially-conducted crusades for reform, with true reform being equated in their minds with the unfolding agenda of liberal thought.
From Johnson’s portrayal in charming detail of William Allen White’s America (1947) to Leuchtenburg’s clear and thoughtful survey, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963), the group published a stream of books. Goldman’s panoramic Rendezvous With Destiny appeared in 1952, along with the first of the three solidly documented biographical volumes on the early FDR that Freidel would produce in the 50’s. During the close-out year—1954—of his associate editorship of eight volumes of Theodore Roosevelt’s letters, Blum deftly distilled his encyclopedic knowledge of TR’s Presidency into The Republican Roosevelt. In 1957, Schlesinger launched a projected multivolume study of the age of Franklin Roosevelt by dramatically recounting The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933, and he reached even higher levels of narrative tension in The Coming of the New Deal (1959) and The Politics of Upheaval (1960), the latter a recreation of the turbulence of 1935-36.
The blurb by Blum on the back of the dust jacket of The Politics of Upheaval represented the sort of encomium that Schlesinger’s Rooseveltian labors had already accustomed him to, and that served to set his work somewhat apart from that of his confreres, even though their books, too. were extremely well received. “As he has before,” glowed Blum,
the author in this book commands the complexity, the contradictions, the vibrancy of the New Deal years. His astute judgments and his skillful organization clarify the meaning of those years for Americans then and now. His literary talents, unsurpassed among historians, recreate the richness and vitality of the period. He is the master of the vignette. Here are incisive portraits of Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Alf Landon, and the New Dealers, too. Here, above all, Franklin Roosevelt moves through history, now indecisive, now grandly constructive, always marvelously alive. This is an indispensable book for all Americans, not just for historians.
Yet for all the compliments that were lavished on their work, these liberal rhapsodists did not have much success with the best graduate students of the period. With only a scattering of exceptions, none of the young people with genuine historical interests was drawn more than briefly to their specialty, while the broad-gauged students who viewed political history as an aspect of social, economic, or intellectual history generally chose to write their dissertations in the latter disciplines under mentors who had their political allegiances, whatever they may have been, under firm control. Thus, the mediocritization of 20th-century American political history began thirty years ago with the failure of a group of specialists in the field to accumulate a critical mass of recruits who came up to their own level of analytical competence, flawed though it was. And the most likely reason for their pedagogical failure was the political bias that drastically narrowed their conceptions of what reform was and kept them from seeing that in modern America virtually every President has been a reformer. There was good theater, to be sure, in the group’s vision of marvelously alive liberal leaders summoning the electorate to one rendezvous with destiny after another, but as a means of cutting into and understanding American history, it was an instrument of limited usefulness, and most of the intellectually sophisticated graduate students—that saving remnant—avoided having it thrust upon them.
The group’s theoretical assumptions were buried in the stuff of their work and did not receive explicit statement as a creed—except by Schlesinger, whose favorite smear word, ironically, is dogma. Not only did he enunciate his black-and-white ideas, but he claimed that they applied to the whole sweep of American history. “Every great crisis thus far in American history,” Schlesinger wrote in the closing pages of The Age of Jackson (1945), the book that brought him a permanent appointment at Harvard well before he was thirty,
has produced a leader adequate to the occasion from the ranks of those who believe vigorously and seriously in liberty, democracy, and the common man. . . . In the past, when liberalism has resolved the crisis and restored tranquillity, conservatism has recovered power by the laws of political gravity; then it makes a new botch of things, and liberalism again must take over in the name of the nation. But the object of liberalism has never been to destroy capitalism, as conservatism invariably claims—only to keep the capitalists from destroying it.
Although the author of Cycles deplores those who conceive of America as a redeemer nation with a mission to save the world, he himself passionately believes that liberalism has been the historic redeemer of America.
Schlesinger acquired his Manichean model of the American past from his historian father, Arthur Meier Schlesinger. As early as 1924 (when his precocious son was a lad of seven), the elder Schlesinger set forth in a lecture his growing conviction that American history had always been bound, and would forever be, by an oscillation of political sentiment between periods of concern for the rights of the few and periods of concern for the wrongs of the many, between eras of quietude and rapid movement, between emphasis on the welfare of human beings and the welfare of property. In 1939, after six years of the New Deal (whose advent he was sure he had predicted), Harvard Professor Schlesinger was more confident than ever that his theory was right, at which point he elaborated it in an essay in the Yale Review, entitled “The Tides of National Politics.” Ten years later, he updated the essay and collected it in Paths to the Present.
Beginning with the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, the elder Schlesinger found that American history had gone through eleven alternating periods of liberalism and conservatism lasting an average of 16.55 years. The latest period of liberalism had begun in 1931, when the Democrats took over the House of Representatives to the discomfiture of President Hoover, and terminated in 1947, the year in which a Republican-controlled Congress “proceeded to reorient the country in a conservative direction.” (For some reason, the author of Paths to the Present did not regard Truman’s upset victory over Dewey in 1948 as a new lease on life for liberalism. Could it be that Paths to the Present had gone to press before the election?) Major deviations in the time span had occurred only in two instances: the eight-year “liberal span” from 1861 to 1869, encompassing the Lincoln and Andrew Johnson administrations, and the ensuing “thirty-two-year reign of conservatism” ending with the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. The likelihood of further deviations was not great, in Schlesinger père’s judgment: “. . . [W]e may expect the recession from liberalism which began in 1947 to last till 1962, with a possible margin of a year or two in one direction or the other.” “The next conservative epoch,” the Nostradamus of Harvard proclaimed, “will then be due around 1978.”2
What generates these mass drifts of sentiment? the elder Schlesinger asked himself. No observable correlation existed with the peaks and valleys of the business cycle, he was honest enough to observe; two bad depressions had occurred in the 1869-1901 period without cessation in the “groundswell of conservatism,” while the New Deal had held sway in an interval of almost unrelieved bad times. Nor was there any correlation, he continued, with foreign wars, or with enlargements of the electorate, or with the physical growth of the country, or with improvements in transportation and communication. Finally, in his puzzlement, he fell back on mass psychology, a difficult subject to deal with in the best of circumstances and especially so for a historian known for his suspicion of Freud and other explorers of the invisible world of the psyche. The oscillations spring from “something basic in human nature,” Professor Schlesinger vaguely ventured. “Apparently the electorate embarks upon conservative policies till it is disappointed or vexed or bored and then attaches itself to liberal policies till a like course is run.”
But if human nature was the key to the shifts, why did the electorate get bored at a different rate of speed from the electorates in other democracies? And what did the terms used to describe the shifts mean anyhow? What did it mean to say that Lincoln’s Presidency was liberal, when everything in his administration from the day it began was subordinate to the conservative cause of preserving the Union? What sense was there in characterizing the post-Civil War period as an “era of quietude,” when even Professor Schlesinger had to admit (albeit in a vocabulary scarcely in touch with the well-nigh revolutionary industrial violence of the late 1870’s) that “the years from 1869 to 1901 were constantly disrupted by the reform agitation of agrarian groups and labor elements”?
“The Tides of National Politics,” in sum, was a murky piece of work which raised far more question about the dynamics of American politics than it answered. But perhaps the least well-thought-out aspect of the essay had to do with the explanation of why the author preferred the image of a spiral to that of a pendulum as a symbol of the oscillation process. The chief govermental gains of any liberal era, Professor Schlesinger pointed out with unalloyed satisfaction in his voice, generally remain on the statute books when the conservatives recover power, and are duly added to when the liberals come back into office, with the result that “liberalism grows constantly more liberal and, by the same token, conservatism grows constantly less conservative.” Hence the aptness of the spiral image. But was there a point at which the spiraling expansion in the size of the federal government would fundamentally alter the nature of the government, so that no democratic leader would be able to make himself master of it? Alas, the question never came up in Paths to the Present, even though by 1949 a bureaucratic political order was clearly emerging in Washington, D.C., in fulfillment of James Burnham’s somber prophecy eight years earlier that the United States was destined to endure a “managerial revolution.”
In the course of his career, the elder Schlesinger had written some highly valuable books and articles, most of them dealing with social and economic issues and ranging impressively over two hundred years of American history. Thus there was ample reason for his son to be proud of him, even if he found “The Tides of National Politics” embarrassing. But in fact he did not find it so, for the degree of identification between father and son would seem to have been so intense as to preclude such a disagreement. At birth, the son had been named Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, in honor of his mother, a collateral descendant of the historian George Bancroft, as well as of his father. But when he was eleven or twelve, dusty volumes of Who’s Who in America reveal, it was decided—presumably with the concurrence of all concerned—that he would thenceforward be known as Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. To this day he still signs himself Junior—and still thinks of himself as the “legatee,” to use his own word, of the theory of American history propounded by his father.
Thus, in The Age of Jackson, the first and by far the best of his big books, the twenty-eight-year-old younger Schlesinger made a whole era come alive by dint of keen attention to ideas and a perspicacious evocation of a host of individuals of different political stripes—and yet was dead wrong in his central thesis. “Jacksonian democracy,” he insisted, “was . . . a second American phase of that enduring struggle between the business community and the rest of society which is the guarantee of freedom in a liberal capitalist state.” How could such an alert historian have been incapable of figuring out that the democratic surge of Jacksonism was intimately linked to the expansion of wide-open, laissez-faire capitalism and was not a phase in the restraint thereof? Part of the answer is that his devotion to Franklin Roosevelt led him to conceive of Jacksonian democracy as an earlier version of the New Deal. But the young author’s false thesis mainly derived from an even more intense devotion. In the Yale Review version of “The Tides of National Politics,” published six years before The Age of Jackson, the years 1829-1841 had been denominated as a period in which emphasis on the welfare of property had given way to an emphasis on human welfare, and for Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., that was that.
At times in his age-of-Roosevelt series Schlesinger again showed that he was capable of a bias-free perspicacity, as in his splendid sketch of Alf Landon. And although his basic judgments of leading New Dealers were all too often predictable, he sometimes dressed them out with fascinating qualifications, even in the case of Roosevelt, while his trackings of the permutations of New Deal policy were admirably careful and clear. As noted earlier, John Morton Blum in his blurb called the third volume of the series an indispensable book for all Americans; indispensable or not, The Politics of Upheaval surely kindled an eagerness in thousands of American readers for the volumes that would carry the story forward to Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and possibly as far as the end of the Truman administration—for had not the time span of The Age of Jackson extended through Van Buren’s Presidency and beyond?
The Politics of Upheaval, however, came out in the same year John F. Kennedy was elected President. Following that event, various liberal historians were quick to compare JFK to TR and FDR. Here once more was a leader in the heroic mold of other liberal Presidents of the century. For Schlesinger, though, the Kennedy victory had an even headier meaning. Schlesinger père’s historical timetable had called for a new liberal tide to come in in the early 1960’s and here it was, more or less right on schedule. By the ineluctable laws of human nature that ruled American politics, a liberal hegemony of 16.55 years was clearly about to begin.
In the coruscating opening pages of The Best and the Brightest (1974), David Halberstam argues that the hubris of the New Frontiersmen was rooted in the good breeding and cerebral hotshotism to which his title refers. But certainly in Schlesinger’s case, if not in others as well, lack of humility also derived from an intoxicating sense of moving to the beat of a powerful historical pulse. Reinhold Niebuhr, of course, had warned of the perennial tragedy of human history. Still and all, to a true believer in “Tides” the prospects for liberal governance looked extraordinarily bright, and never more so than on the gray, chilly afternoon of January 9, 1961, in Schlesinger’s house on Irving Street in Cambridge, when the President-elect at last asked his host if he was ready to work at the White House. Schlesinger in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965) remembers replying, “I am not sure what I would be doing as Special Assistant, but, if you think I can help, I would like to come.” Neither in word nor in thought, evidently, did he register the slightest regret at having to put aside his age-of-Roosevelt series, in which he had barely reached the end of FDR’s first term in office.3
In the days following his acceptance of Kennedy’s remarkably unspecific invitation, Schlesinger was reputed to have invested a fair amount of time trying to convince colleagues in the Harvard history department that active involvement in politics would deepen his understanding of the subject and make him a better historian. But if these reports were true, he was profoundly self-deceived. Far from becoming a better historian, he would never again, for the next twenty-six years, be able to think critically, and the field of 20th-century American political history would be further damaged as a result. The proposal that he join the New Frontier constituted a test of his will to stay the course as a historian—and he flunked it, even as the test posed by the Vietnam war would snap his vaunted “radical nerve” and cause him to quail before St. Augustine’s certainty, as restated by Niebuhr, that “to the end of history, the peace of the world must be gained by strife.”
Schlesinger’s confession of confusion about his duties as Special Assistant was waved off by Kennedy. “Well, I am not sure what I will be doing as President either,” he said, “but I am sure there will be enough at the White House to keep us both busy.” A graceful joke surely, and Schlesinger retells it well. Nevertheless, his account of that gray afternoon on Irving Street reads strangely. For Kennedy to have been unclear in his mind about the role he expected Schlesinger to play in Washington would have been totally out of character for him, and Schlesinger could not have been so naive as not to realize that he was being tacitly asked to take copious notes on the Kennedy administration and eventually to write its history. In the 1980’s Edmund Morris, literarily the most gifted of living biographers of American political leaders, would also be granted access to a sitting President so that he might portray him in print, but both sides would recognize the problem of protecting the biographer’s intellectual independence; wherefore it was proposed and agreed that Morris would have regular contact with the Reagan White House, but would not be of it. That kind of ethical concern, however, had never been characteristic of Joseph P. Kennedy’s way of doing business, and it did not affect his son’s. The Kennedys coopted people, if necessary they bought them (to ghostwrite a book or whatever), and when the President-elect created a slot on his staff for the eager Schlesinger he thereby made him his creature—and his family’s.
A Thousand Days—published a mere two years after Kennedy’s death—runs to more than a thousand pages and is crammed with excerpts from documents, quotes of conversations, and intricately detailed recapitulations of events. As such, it is a valuable historical source. Unfortunately, the memoir also warrants comparison with Parson Weems’s pamphlet biography of George Washington, the purpose of which, Weems explained to a publisher in 1800, was to bring out the President’s “Great Virtues.” Not from A Thousand Days can the reader learn about Kennedy’s dalliances, during his assignment as a fledgling naval officer in 1941 and early 1942 to the Office of Naval Intelligence, with a married blonde of Danish birth who was suspected of being a German agent; or about his personal friendship with Senator Joe McCarthy; or about the rockiness of his marriage (“Like all marriages, this one may have had its early strains,” says Schlesinger in dismissal of the subject); or even about the full extent of the disease he suffered from and the daily implantation of deoxycorticosterone acetate pellets in his thighs that it required before the arrival of cortisone in a form that could be taken orally.
Minimizing threats to Kennedy’s luster and making pitiless cracks about his opponents, especially Nixon, became the unseemly devoirs of a once-honorable historian. But that was only the beginning of his degradation. As the assassination of the President proved to be but a prelude to his brother’s, as situation-room confidence in counter-insurgency was eaten away by guilt about body counts, as the civil-rights movement led to black power, Keynesian full employment to runaway inflation, and the poverty program to social pathology, as the entire liberal dream took on the aspects of nightmare, Schlesinger surrendered to sheer fantasizing. The most egregious example was the 900 pages of treacle entitled Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), which argued that in the role of tribune of the dispossessed young Kennedy came to haunt the American imagination and did so still, a decade after his death. Of how many imaginations besides those of Roosevelt Grier and Anthony Lewis could Schlesinger have been actually thinking?
With The Cycles of American History, the extent to which the historian has internalized his father’s point of view becomes clearer than ever. In his central essay, “The Cycles of American Politics,” the author sets forth a new version of what he refers to as “the Schlesinger formulation” of American politics. The emphasis now falls on 20th-century American history rather than the full run, and instead of being broken down into sixteen-year tides it is presented in three cycles, each of thirty years’ duration. The first two cycles follow the same pattern: each began with two stirring decades (1901-20 and 1933-52) of “public action, passion, idealism, and reform,” and were succeeded by one deplorable decade (the 1920’s and the 1950’s) of “materialism, hedonism, and the overriding quest for personal gratification.” (Yes, that’s right. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. deplores personal gratification.) The third cycle, however, began with a foreshortened period of commitment to larger purposes, extending only from the advent of Kennedy to the early 1970’s, after which the “compass needle . . . swung toward private interest and the fulfillment of self.”
Beneath the streamlined chassis, the chrome fender guards, and the body stripes, “The Cycles of American Politics” is the same old Tin Lizzie in which the elder Schlesinger took American history for a ride. As before, a view of human nature that stops at the borders of the Republic is invoked as the force governing everything. “A nation’s capacity for high-tension political commitment is limited. Nature insists on a respite. People can no longer gird themselves for heroic effort. They yearn to immerse themselves in the privacies of life.” But thanks to the miracle of mass psychology, people eventually “grow bored with selfish motives and vistas, [they] weary of materialism as the ultimate goal. The vacation from public responsibility replenishes the national energies and recharges the national batteries. People . . . ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country.” Which is why Schlesinger can speak of the future with the same air of authority as his father. The national batteries will soon be recharged, he prophesies. “Shortly before or after the year 1990,” Manichean America is going to get moving again.
But recent swings in American politics have been so erratic and so frequent as to make a mockery of the cycle concept. In a preemptive strike against this horrid idea, Schlesinger acknowledges the seeming anomaly that the Environmental Protection Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act became law on the dreadful Nixon’s watch, and that Nixon even proposed a guaranteed minimum income in his Family Assistance Program, as well as indexing social-security benefits, imposing wage-and-price controls, and presiding over the fastest increase in social payments since the New Deal. Not to fret. Even though by the terms of the cycle theory an era of selfishness surely ought to have begun with Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, the “liberal tide of the 60’s [was] still running strong.”
It may further seem anomalous, Schlesinger goes on to say, that a Democrat was elected President in 1976, smack in the middle of an otherwise Republican line-up. Not to fret. The four-year Carter Presidency did not represent an inexplicably brief recrudescence of the reign of the good guys, for Carter was “the most conservative Democratic President since Grover Cleveland.” He was a throwback, this Georgian, and from “a longer perspective, the differences between Carter and Reagan will seem less consequential than the continuities.” So much for the fact that, for all his skepticism about big-government solutions, Carter significantly extended liberalism’s domestic agenda in a number of areas, such as education, energy, and urban development (the action-grant program), while in foreign policy it would be hard for anyone to deny that he was a liberal for almost three years, inasmuch as liberalism in this realm has been equated since Vietnam with the abnegation of national power. Moreover, the alleged throwback to Grover Cleveland was actually a portent of things to come, for the streaky combination of conservatism and liberalism for which Carter stood is evident nationwide in today’s Democratic party, and may well provide oratorical themes for its presidential nominees in the era dead ahead that Nostradamus, Jr. likes to think will touch off a new cycle of his kind of politics.
“Power is poison,” Henry Adams darkly remarks in The Education of Henry Adams (1918), but if those sobering words are quoted in the pages of Cycles it is only because the author wishes to quarrel with them. Which is ironic, because being close to the President of the United States in the early 1960’s unquestionably poisoned the wells of Schlesinger’s historical imagination. The stories of Blum, Freidel, and Leuchtenburg (and of the other members of their historical group) unfolded somewhat differently; nevertheless, a grim complementarity to the fate of Schlesinger obtained.
There may be other reasons—there almost surely are—why Blum’s later career would be distinguished principally by his service on one of Harvard’s governing boards rather than by scholarship; and why Freidel, after churning out three volumes on FDR, bing, bing, bing, in 1952, 1954, and 1956, should not have been able to come up with volume four, Launching the New Deal, until 1973 and has since fallen silent as Roosevelt’s biographer; and why the intellectual promise of Leuchtenburg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, published in the final year of Camelot, remains unfulfilled. Yet at the same time that we must concede the likely presence in their lives of other coercive factors, it is difficult not to believe that as historians these three men—and many others like them in universities across the nation—were disabled by the political events of the 1960’s and their reverberating sequels in the 1970’s and 1980’s. History, it would seem, betrayed a whole generation of specialists in 20th-century American political history because it smashed their working model of the American experience, as constructed by them out of the New Deal in their impressionable youth.
Although this generation is now passing from the academy, its successors for the most part remain wedded to the study of presidential elections as the only way to understand the political scene. There is, however, another way, as a good many political scientists, economists, and sociologists have discovered. While the electorate in the past forty years has switched allegiances time and again, the linear development of a leaderless, bureaucratic government has proceeded unbrokenly. In the middle and late 1940’s, the consolidation of the administrative apparatus of the New Deal, the emergence of a national-security establishment, and the recruitment into federal service of experts from the natural sciences and the social sciences had the effect of placing much of the government beyond the control of elected officials.
Schlesinger, in Cycles, creates the impression that because the liberal Presidents of the postwar period, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, kept their White House staffs small and served as their own chiefs of staff, they were very much in charge of things. The quantum leap in size of the White House staff took place under Nixon and was the product, Schlesinger avers, of his paranoiac insecurity as President. These vaporings merely illustrate the pathos of Schlesinger’s intellectual situation, as does his anti-Nixon, anti-Vietnam war diatribe, The Imperial Presidency (1973). In fact, the only postwar President who has come even close to asserting presidential control over the executive bureaucracy was Eisenhower, and that was because he governed through a general-staff system with which he, as a long-time Army officer, was eminently familiar. And if the White House staff was enlarged during Nixon’s Presidency, it was because he, too, sought to bring the bureaucracy to heel.
Today, an elaborate staff exists in the houses of Congress as well as in the White House, and the modus operandi for the staffs of the vast federal agencies is to lobby their counterparts on the Hill, rather than the Congressmen themselves. Meanwhile, “iron triangles” linking executive bureaus, congressional committees, and interest-group clienteles protect their stakes in federal programs by frustrating the efforts of Presidents and their appointees to horn in on the policy-making action. Ramifying out beyond the Washington Beltway are the intermediary organizations—the consultants, the contractors, the city and state governments—through which the federal bureaucracy prefers to act so as to keep down its numerical strength (and thus silence protests about it), while at the same time expanding its political strength. And “issue networks,” as the political scientist Hugh Heclo calls them, further politicize the nation at large by enabling such variegated people as the businessman with shady international contacts, the renowned economist sitting by the telephone in his book-lined study, and the citizens’ group voicing its outrage at a planning-commission hearing to plug into the Washington power frame.
We like to think that when a new President comes into office he takes full command. Vertically and for brief periods, presidential authority has indeed been felt in the furthest reaches of the bureaucracy, most recently under the budget-cutting and deregulating Ronald Reagan. Horizontally and consistently, however, it has not.
In an age of bureaucracy, more historians ought to join the effort of their social-science colleagues to follow the connections between politics and administration. Many benefits might result from the rise of such a scholarship. It could serve to rejuvenate a badly ailing academic discipline. It might help to create a general appreciation of why so many of the episodes that have shaken the American Presidency in the past twenty-six years, from the decision to go forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion to the Watergate debacle to the Iranian arms scandal, have been bureaucratic dramas. On a considerably lower level of importance, it could also make even more apparent than is already the case that the prefabricated political responses of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. have very little bearing on the world that lies around him.
1 Houghton Mifflin, 498 pp., $22.95.
2 This sentence and the one preceding it are also quoted in Cycles—in mangled form. Moreover, the author's footnote on them refers us to page 97 of the 1949 edition of Paths to the Present, whereas they actually appear on page 85. All three of his other footnote citations of that book are likewise inaccurate. The time when Schlesinger, Jr. was justly renowned for his infallibility in such matters is no more, sad to say.
3 In the fall of 1986, Schlesinger let it be known that he was finally going to write volume four, a consideration of American foreign policy in the 30's.