Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.: 1917 to 2007
Arthur Schlesinger passed away last night at the age of 89. He was a superb historian, with an amazing command of language, and, more than that, a substantial force in liberal thought over decades of writing and discussion. His work with the Kennedy Administration was highly influential, and his analysis of all of the political machinations since then has opened any number of doors for questioning the wisdom of the status quo in American politics and the philosophies and mores on which it rests.
The WaPo and the NYTimes have vignettes about Schlesinger today — both of which miss any substantial discussion of what, I think at least, was one of Schlesinger's seminal works, The Imperial Presidency. So, for that, I turn to John Dean:
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Imperial Presidency gave the term its currency. He traces its growth from George Washington to Richard Nixon, showing how a presidency never contemplated by the founders has evolved. As a basis for their authority, presidents typically cited their role as commander-in-chief — an undefined constitutional term — and "inherited powers" other presidents had used before them.
After Nixon pushed the presidential powers even further than past presidents had, both the Congress and Supreme Court acted to curtail his activities. In the name of protecting national security, Nixon wanted to be able to wiretap without the approval of a judge. The authority for this power? Before the Court of Appeals, Nixon relied on a vague "historical power of the sovereign to preserve itself" and "the inherent power of the President to safeguard the security of the nation."
Later, arguing the issue before the Supreme Court, the government got even more vague — just loosely using the national security contention. In the end, the Court — in the ironically named case United States v. United States Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (which became known as the Keith Case) — said no. Joining the opinion were all of Nixon's own appointees — except William Rehnquist, who recused himself….
Not inaccurately, the Bush presidency has been called imperial, in Schlesinger's sense. The evidence? Its "preemptive" and "preventive" military policy, its contentions that it can go to war regardless of whether Congress approves, its policies calling for American world domination, and its unprecedented blending of national security policy and domestic law enforcement. In my view, these policies and positions not only easily establish the Bush presidency as imperial, they also rank it beyond anything in the annals of the modern American presidency. This may be the most imperial Presidency our history has yet seen.
I've spoken with Arthur Schlesinger about it — asking him if he thought the Bush presidency fit his description of an imperial presidency. In response, he chuckled, and said, "I'd certainly say this is an imperial presidency."
Arthur Schlesinger's wit and wisdom will certainly be missed. The insights that he provided over a lifetime of historical scholarship will continue to illuminate the dark corners of the halls of power. And in that, he will certainly continue for generations to come.