A capable evocation of an American brahminate: the eminent liberal intelligentsia that led Ivy League schools and major cities through tough times—and that led America into Vietnam.
The principal players in former Yale history lecturer Kabaservice’s drama are gone: Cyrus Vance died in 2002 at the age of 84, having served several Democratic presidents and other elected officials, including his friend John Lindsay, who “appointed Vance to the four-member Knapp Commission to look into police corruption; the investigation presented a major headache for the mayor as the commission turned up evidence of widespread police graft and inaction on the part of City Hall.” Lindsay died two years earlier, having seen New York through some of its hardest years; his successor, Ed Koch, “particularly enjoyed scapegoating the patrician ex-mayor,” laying the blame for the city’s woes at Lindsay’s door. McGeorge Bundy, the architect of much Johnson administration Vietnam policy, died in 1996, disgraced; his friend Elliot Richardson died in 1999, similarly fallen from grace. All outlived their great friend Kingman Brewster, the visionary president of Yale, who took the university into the coed age and gave Richard Nixon fits by espousing a variety of left-of-center causes. Indeed, Kabaservice notes, Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger considered a statement Brewster made that questioned whether black revolutionaries could “achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States” to be the most seditious thing he had heard uttered in his lifetime. This constellation, writes Kabaservice, formed the heart of American liberalism, a cause that made considerable headway in the early Cold War era but then gave way before the radicalism of the New Left and the resurgence of the Old Right. Their failure to speak to the “broad American middle, whether defined in terms of class or of outlook,” made liberalism irrelevant and paved the way for Reaganism and Bushism.
Fine cultural history, especially welcome in a time when the L-word is a pejorative.