Schlesinger looks afresh at America's political experiment

The Cycles of American History, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 498 pp. $22.95. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. is surely the preeminent voice among modern American historians - and for good reason. Mr. Schlesinger has combined two roles: man of letters and (on a more modest level) public servant. As a scholar, he has written outstanding books on Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John and Robert Kennedy, as well as important discussions of America's tragic chapter in Vietnam and the growth of the post-World War II ``Imperial Presidency.'' As a public official, he was a player - albeit a minor one - in the Kennedy administration.

Schlesinger's latest book, ``The Cycles of American History,'' will add to his deserved stature. Through a collection of essays, many of them previously published, this book examines afresh the nature of the American political experiment. Schlesinger is, of course, a political liberal. But his political bent involves more than just ``New Deal'' or ``New Frontier'' underpinnings. Ultimately, his concerns go beyond momentary ideologies of left or right. They hark back to the intentions and aspirations of the Founding Fathers. Examples are Schlesinger's aversion to religious intolerance, his preoccupation with the pragmatic and flexible nature of American society, and the need to reconcile civil liberty and democratic pluralism within the framework of a strong central government. He agonizes over the dual nature of United States foreign policy - driving imperialism mixed with or alternating with humanitarian good works.

He has terse and not always happy views of recent presidents. Kennedy, not surprisingly, ``glittered when he lived, and the whole world grieved when he died.'' Of Ike, however, he writes that ``we were wrong to have underestimated Eisenhower's genius for self-presentation and self-preservation.'' And about the current White House incumbent, he argues that ``Reagan's triumph over anomaly, fantasy and failure was due in part to the serene and contagious optimism with which he walked away from car crashes.''

Schlesinger contends that America is about to embark on another of its periodic shifts from conservatism to liberalism. Such cycles, as he sees them, come every three decades or so. The thesis is not illogical. Americans, as he points out, are a pragmatic people. Americans tend instinctively to hedge their bets when it comes to national goals - and national leaders.

If Schlesinger's cyclical thesis is to be faulted, it is perhaps on the grounds that opinion polls in recent years show that the ideological movement of most Americans has been far less pronounced than the outcome of presidential contests might indicate. There has been very little shifting by Americans between the extremes of ``left and right,'' no matter who has occupied the White House. As Schlesinger himself notes, Reagan's election in 1980 was no pivotal movement toward ``conservatism.'' That being the case, one must question whether there will in fact be a fundamental movement toward ``liberalism'' in the 1990s, no matter who occupies the White House. Further, most traditional Democrats today seem to recognize that the big-government, grand-program orientation of Democratic presidents of the past is no longer realistic in a period of budget stringency and political localism.

Now, with these slight caveats, one would be hard pressed to deny that the Democratic Party (assuming that is still the vehicle of traditional liberalism) is in a far better position than it has been of late as it looks to the 1988 presidential contest. Indeed, the party's position has probably been enhanced by the current Iran affair.

Mentioning the Iranian arms sales requires a hard look at Schlesinger's disdain for the office of vice president. He raises another option: Abolish the office and hold a special presidential election in the event a president dies or steps down from office. Surely the past half century, if nothing else, has proven the need for not only retaining but strengthening the office of vice president. Modern technological societies, where decisions must often be instant, require strong leadership at the top, as well as a careful and instant framework for political succession. Both Carter (with Mondale) and Reagan (with Bush) prudently upgraded the duties of their vice presidents.

All that said, Schlesinger's book is an excellent and provocative primer on the challenges surrounding the contemporary American political setting. He looks forward in time to what he perceives to be a more enlightened political period, but he does so by looking backward - to the origins and democratic aspirations of the American political experiment. Thus, the book meets Schlesinger's own standard for excellence: first-rate history mixed with a strong sense of public service.

Guy Halverson is a Monitor editorial writer.

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