Liberalism and The Age of Schlesinger

03/06/2007 11:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In April of 1995 in Warm Springs, Ga., I met Arthur Schlesinger. We'd met once before and he was nice enough to pretend he knew it. We'd come to memorialize the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I worked for Bill Clinton, so I got to ride on Air Force One with Schlesinger, John Kenneth Galbraith and Mary McGrory. All three are gone now.

Schlesinger fell last week to a heart attack while dining out in New York. He so loved the city and its society that one easily imagines him picking his moment and spot. He outlasted his liberal era by a good many years. He believed history was cyclical and may have thought he lived long enough to glimpse its return. Reading the entrails of the last election, we may think so too and wonder what his liberalism might mean to us.

"Liberal" means many things. The liberalism of Thomas Jefferson drew on many sources. It took its optimism from France, its realism from Scotland and its practicality from America. Jefferson loved freedom-- economic, political, religious, personal-- and hated such tyranny as he recognized. He loved science as much as politics and believed in the power of reason and ideas.
Franklin Roosevelt's liberalism meant a robust internationalism and a government strong enough to secure prosperity, defend freedom and save capitalism from itself. Among its achievements is a broad, durable middle class, the first in human history.

If you don't read much history, and Americans generally don't, you won't believe how Roosevelt's liberalism made conservatives cower. Now the word "liberal" scares liberals. Conservatives managed to turn the word into an epithet, but liberalism helped bring itself down by running out of steam just as conservatism is doing now.

Roosevelt was in his day a new Democrat. His brand of liberalism was the "third way" of its time, a course skillfully charted between the twin disasters of rising totalitarianism and imploding capitalism.

Critics called it elitism, and in some ways the New Deal was Harvard's answer to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. (Unable to discredit the New Deal, despairing conservatives eventually took aim at Harvard, which went better for them.)

Conservatives hated Roosevelt, but they still fight liberals over who gets Jefferson. It used to be a fair fight, but today's conservatives lay at best a feeble claim to the mantle of a man who studiously avoided foreign wars, despised deficits, adored the French and penned the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom.

In Schlesinger's day, liberals and conservatives divided by Roosevelt could still find common ground in Jefferson. They shared a love of rational thought, a reverence for an individual's dignity and, in their different ways, a distrust of concentrated power. With so much in common, they got along well. Bill Buckley, hero to a generation of conservatives, respected Schlesinger and befriended Galbraith.

I met Buckley too at a memorial, a service for the great socialist Michael Harrington. He sat in the back, on his face a sorrowful expression. I was later privileged to debate him on his show "Firing Line." Later still, I was running for governor and bumped into him. He put his hand on my arm and said, "I will vote against you with the deepest affection." A long fall it is from Bill Buckley to Bill O'Reilly, from the civil and enlightened discourse of that generation to today's vapid and vicious Washington phrase factory.

Whatever their shortcomings, Roosevelt's heirs have proven better than their conservative brethren at holding onto the spirit of Jefferson. The liberalism of Schlesinger and Galbraith was more a philosophy than an ideology, by which I mean it posed more questions and gave fewer answers, never forgetting the rigor it takes to get to the truth of any matter.

In the end Liberalism may best be seen as a kind of temperament. Schlesinger's good friend Isaiah Berlin admired the fox for knowing many things and feared the hedgehog for knowing only one. Ideologues with their certainty and their single solutions were hedgehogs; liberals with their curiosity and skepticism were like the fox.

Schlesinger's cycles of history were but a framework. He didn't claim to know exactly when or why the wheel turned. Like Berlin and Buckley, he accepted our imperfection but also our duty to lift each other up. Like Jefferson and Roosevelt, he thought democracy best suited to the task. We mourn his passing and look to the wheel's next turn.