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The Nation | Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: 1917-2007

Influential historian, intellectual and aide to President Kennedy

March 01, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former special White House assistant to President Kennedy who was an influential liberal voice in American politics for decades, died Wednesday. He was 89.

Schlesinger, who chronicled the Kennedy administration in his 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "A Thousand Days," suffered a heart attack Wednesday night at a New York City restaurant, according to his son Stephen C. Schlesinger. He was pronounced dead at New York Downtown Hospital.

Once described as "one of the last great figures from the Golden Age of American intellectuals," the Harvard-educated historian received early recognition for his scholarly work.

He was 21 when his first book, "Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress," was published in 1939. In a review for the New York Times, renowned historian Henry Steele Commager said the book about the 19th century American intellectual "not only rescues from underserved oblivion a striking and authentic figure in our history, but announces a new and distinguished talent in the field of historical portraiture."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Schlesinger obituary: The obituary of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in Thursday's Section A stated that Hubert H. Humphrey was a senator when he joined Schlesinger and others in founding Americans for Democratic Action. Humphrey was mayor of Minneapolis at the time.

At 28, Schlesinger received his first Pulitzer Prize, for the 1945 bestseller "The Age of Jackson," a reevaluation of Andrew Jackson's presidency that, as Edwin A. Miles wrote in "The Dictionary of Literary Biography," "stands as a significant landmark in the writing of the nation's history."

Schlesinger gained further acclaim in the 1950s for what many historians consider his greatest achievement: his multi-volume "The Age of Roosevelt." The three volumes published between 1957 and 1960 were popular Book of the Month Club selections that, according to Miles, "attest to his superb style, felicity of phrase, keen sense of drama, and successful blending of narrative and analytical history."

History professor Alan Brinkley of Columbia University told the Boston Globe in 1997 that Schlesinger in the first decade after World War II "was far and away the most influential historian of Jacksonian democracy, the New Deal and probably one of the two or three most influential historians of any sort" in the United States.

Schlesinger also championed Democratic and liberal policies in various books during this period, including "The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom" (1949), "Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?" (1960) and "The Politics of Hope" (1963).

He later criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam policy in the 1967 book "The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966." And, in 2004, he targeted the Iraq war and the presidency of George W. Bush in "War and the American Presidency."

Among Schlesinger's many books is one that added a popular phrase to the political lexicon: "The Imperial Presidency" (1973), his study of -- and call to curb -- the escalating power of the executive branch.

Managing dual roles

But Schlesinger's influence extended beyond the written word. He played a prominent role in U.S. politics for decades.

In 1947, he joined former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and others as founding members of Americans for Democratic Action, an influential liberal organization whose early efforts included fighting for the inclusion of a strong civil rights plank in the platform at the 1948 Democratic Convention.

During the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, Schlesinger took leaves of absence from Harvard to work as an advisor and speech writer for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. He had similar roles during Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign.

For some, Schlesinger's dual roles as a historian and political activist were at odds. He saw it differently.

"I always combined academic life with what academics call 'the real world,' " the slight and bespectacled Schlesinger, dapperly sporting one of his trademark bow ties, told the Boston Globe in 1997. "Being a concerned citizen does not prevent one from being a good historian."

After Kennedy's election in 1960, Schlesinger resigned from the faculty at Harvard to join the new administration.

"It was an invitation no historian could resist -- to see how decisions were made," he later told the Boston Globe.

As a special assistant to the president, Schlesinger served as liaison with Stevenson, Kennedy's ambassador to the United Nations and as an advisor on Latin America. He also was the administration's link between the scholastic, intellectual and cultural communities.

Former Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorenson once described the outspoken historian as "a lightning rod to attract Republican attacks away from the rest of us."

Of Schlesinger's role in the Kennedy administration, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has said that Schlesinger was a man without whom his brother "Jack couldn't have had the New Frontier."

Schlesinger had befriended John Kennedy after World War II when Kennedy was elected as congressman in Schlesinger's Boston-area district.

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