The Court Historian

Posted: Mar 09, 2007 12:01 AM

Whatever its critics say about the New York Times, let us now praise its better features.

For one thing, the Times publishes some of the most powerful and influential editorials in the country, even if they appear in the news columns.

For another, there is the Times' civilized coverage of sports, especially baseball. Something of the spirit of the late, great and probably unsurpassable Red Smith still resides in its sports section. Some of us need to remember that whenever we get our knickers in a twist, as the Brits say, over its coverage of the merely political.

Best of all, there is the generous amount of space and research the Times devotes to its obituaries. There are few things livelier than its coverage of the dead. Or more detailed. Its generous coverage of the Late Great can approach the encyclopedic. For which even its habitual critics should be grateful.

The Times' customary partisanship seems to abate on its obituary pages. Maybe because death cools passions, lends perspective, and even provides something approaching objectivity.

For beautiful example, there was the banner headline over its obituary of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., which in a few words provided a succinct and eminently fair summary of that gentleman's place among recent American historians: <>

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a Partisan Historian of Power, Is Dead at 89.

The opening paragraph was no less candid, describing Professor Schlesinger as "a provocative, unabashedly liberal partisan, most notably while serving in the Kennedy White House." Proximity to power, it turns out, doesn't improve historians any more than it does journalists, much as both breeds may love to be near the movers and shakers.

The professor's history was always just a medium for his politics. He tended to remodel the past to reflect his present preferences. So that slaveholding Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, having founded the sainted Democratic Party,were depicted as allies of the working class. (Only later would the professor confess to having glossed over the Jacksonians' responsibility for the Trail of Tears and their brutal treatment of American Indians in general.)

In American history a la Schlesinger, Andy Jackson is recast as a New Dealer, and Franklin Roosevelt as, well, God. The visionaries who shaped this country's modern system of banking and finance - like Alexander Hamilton - became reactionaries in his pages. But the president he personally served as speechwriter and amanuensis, for whom he even lied, John F. Kennedy, could do no wrong. Or if he did, he had good reason.

Mr. Schlesinger did have a talent for the written word, even if his prose took on a purplish hue when he got carried away, which was often. He was not about to let an inconvenient fact get in the way of his story line - whether writing about Old Hickory's war on the Second Bank of the United States or the Bonus March of 1932 during the Hoover administration and debacle. He was shouting in type long before the shout shows debuted on the cable channels.

And yet he was not one of those liberals who embraced every passing leftish fad. For example, he was an early critic of multiculturalists who would break up a single, civil American culture into competing splinters. (After all, it was the culture in which he thrived that they were trying to break up.) And he never mistook communists for simple, misunderstood agrarian reformers; he understood the danger that their influence represented in liberal circles even while snickering at those who took the Red Menace seriously.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. may have been a partisan historian of power, to quote the New York Times, but he was no fool.

On his death, one is struck again by the gulf that separates the historian from the court historian. It's as wide as that which separates the prophet from the court prophet. The surest sign of a true prophet may be that he goes unhonored in his own country. By the time he died this week at 89,Arthur M. Schlesinger had been showered with honors.