With a jaundiced eye, octogenarian Schlesinger (A Life in the 20th Century, 2000, etc.) displays continuing zest for intellectual combat with seven historical essays on the war in Iraq, the Dubya administration, and the continuing American democratic experiment.
The Imperial Presidency (a phrase Schlesinger coined in the 1970s) has returned, he announces. The Bush II administration has reverted to the policy of unilateralism laid down by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but this time with a dangerous twist: preventive war. In other essays, Schlesinger delineates the long history of American dissent in wartime; lays out the possibility that a direct popular vote for President would lead to a free-for-all of third-party kooks and scoundrels; and considers the perils of misapplied history by politicians. Schlesinger piercingly underscores major flaws of this war: the denial of legal rights to Guantánamo Bay detainees, the lack of unerring intelligence data essential to a preventive war, and the lack of Arabic speakers at the State Department that has left us “eyeless in Iraq.” Nor has he lost his gift for the pungent comment (“Impeachment,” he notes, “is an extreme way of teaching presidents lessons”). But as court chronicler of Camelot, the author is reluctant to utter a syllable of praise for even a dead Republican. While attacking Bush for embarking on the Iraq war as a distraction from the necessary conflict with al-Qaeda, for instance, he doesn’t acknowledge that JFK embarked on his own sideshow—Vietnam—as a means of confronting Khrushchev after being bullied about Berlin at the Vienna summit. Friend and foe alike will find the historian’s arguments oddly familiar, e.g., “No administration since the Second World War has so systematically scorned the United Nations, defied the World Court, overrode the interests of allies, dismissed negotiation with adversaries.” Schlesinger on George W. Bush? No, on Ronald Reagan. Different circumstances, different actors, same script. In other words, the message sounds less like The Cycles of American History (the quote’s source) than recycled rhetoric.
A sharp, often effective brief against Bush that would be more convincing had Schlesinger not placed his historical objectivity in a blind trust.