A Historian’s Valedictory
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. could be blunt. The worst he would say about George W. Bush in the early going was that he was “an amiable mediocrity.” But it did not take long for President Bush to fall close to the very bottom of Mr. Schlesinger’s not inconsiderable list of bad presidents — in large part because he had committed the one mistake that a great historian could not abide, which was to wantonly ignore the experience of history.
Mr. Schlesinger died on Wednesday night at the age of 89. He had managed an active social life until the end — he suffered his heart attack in a Manhattan restaurant — and every morning he rose and did some serious writing.
But he had grown frail and bent, so in December a lunch in New York was organized in his honor. The room was thick with tributes to his monumental works on the New Deal, his Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes (one, for “The Age of Jackson,” awarded at the ripe old age of 27), and his service in the Kennedy administration.
All this, though, was a mere prelude to Mr. Schlesinger’s own brief reflections, as he put it, on the “relevance of history. ” His first point was that historians themselves are prisoners of their own experience, committed “to a doomed enterprise — the quest for an unattainable objectivity.” It was a disarming way of acknowledging the critics who had suggested that he, at times, had shaped history to fit his own liberal agenda. It was also a summons to other historians to be willing to concede error and revisit the past.
But a far more grievous failing, he said, is to ignore history altogether, especially in a nation that has so often demonstrated imperial appetites. “History is the best antidote to delusions of omnipotence and omniscience, ” he said, forcing us “to a recognition of the fact, so often and so sadly displayed, that the future outwits all our certitudes.”
Is there a better description of the arrogance that has led to our current predicament? Mr. Schlesinger did not mention anyone by name, partly because it was unnecessary, but also because Mr. Bush was hardly alone in his indifference to the ironies of history.
ROBERT B. SEMPLE JR.