Arthur Schelesinger Jr. lived through tumultuous times of financial decline and enormous prosperity that were coupled with an era of brutal wars and extended peace. Although the book begins decades ago, it exposes the same rank political partisanship of today. A Liberal, Schlesinger is positive that any election of a Republican will doom the country, if not his party, as well. Everything is viewed as conspiracy and everything done by the other side is evil. Anyone who disagrees with the liberal view is wrong and will come to their senses in the future. He sees the political campaigns as riddled with crudeness and negativity.
The book reads like the who’s who of liberal politics and will inform the reader in myriad ways through the letters, the footnotes and the comments. It reads like a history book, but is less dry, although it is not a page turner, by any means. It needs to be read slowly in order to absorb all of the information. For a historian, it might be old hat, but for the layman, the book is eye-opening. It sure shows that politics has remained as corrupt and malignant as ever.
Schlesinger’s liberalism is emphasized from the beginning of the book, however, in some ways it seems a bit different than today’s more radical progressive ideas. He believes in individual rights and the right to privacy. Today, as the government moves more and more to control our civil rights, regulate our choices and monitor our phones, we have lost a good deal of both of those policies he supported.
He went to Phillips Exeter and claimed it was conservative. Today, most academic institutions lean totally to the left, unless there is a religious element to the school. I was surprised to read that his paternal grandfather was Jewish, but I don’t believe that much of that religion was left in his background in any other way than the adherence to liberal views.
He believed that the democrats had cornered the market on civil rights, yet it was the republicans who ultimately supported an end to slavery and the democrats who supported the KKK, including the Democrat, Senator Byrd, who served for years and was reelected until his death. For the Southern Democrats, slavery was integral to their economy. It was the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who segregated Washington DC and Eisenhower, the Republican, who desegregated it. I remark about these historic events merely to point out that there is often a selective memory on the part of many Democrats, as well as Republicans, when they want to make their case and prove their point about their policies. They have a belief in an ideology, but perhaps a blindness to the actual facts.
In an era in which letter writing has become a lost art, losing out to the sound bite and the mobile telephone, it is refreshing to look back to a time when the written word had value and import. Arthur wrote countless letters which have preserved the history of his experience and the experience of this country. The first letter featured in the book is a letter home to the family at large, to tell them about the day the war ended in Europe, and to describe the ensuing celebrations which were over the top, but probably necessary and warranted after so many years of fighting.
The footnotes on some pages are longer than the text and it can be distracting, although between the letters and the footnotes it is a terrific history of the country from 1946 until his death from a liberal/progressive point of view. Perhaps the times were not as bitter and divisive as they are today, but the seeds for this schism were definitely being sown.
Schlesinger had many ideas which fly in the face of the liberal views of today. He was against direct talks with Russia, but the current Obama administration wants direct talks with many countries in which we have adversarial relationships, Iran being one. At times, he seemed to believe that liberals supported policies simply to appear to be on the side of social justice, regardless of the issue involved. However, he found himself in opposition to anything resembling Republican values, considered them useless. He favored academics, like Obama, not businessmen in high positions. He believed academics would be better fund raisers since they were more familiar with the product they were selling!
He believed that the failure of democratic polices was not due to the quality of the policy, but a result of an ignorant public that didn't understand the reasons behind them and needed to be educated, which does not seem that different from the popular view of today’s White House, especially with regard to The Affordable Health Care Act and immigration reform.
Although I have not quite finished the book, I wanted to put something on paper so others might decide to read it. It is definitely an education into liberal policy and a window into the minds of the strong liberals of his time. What goes round comes around, and politics remains the same. Eleanor Roosevelt, in her column, wrote, probably tongue in cheek, that she never thought Stevenson was a socialist and asks, “did you”? The same question has been asked today, of our current President.