Action Liberalism

Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism by Dominic Sandbrook (Knopf, 416 pages, $25.95)

The Fall of the House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power from FDR to LBJ by Michael Janeway (Columbia University Press, 284 pages, $27.50)

The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment by Geoffrey Kabaservice (Henry Holt & Co., 592 pages, $30.00)

Though it ended in defeat, John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid may someday be hailed as the moment when liberalism began to rediscover its vigor and voice. In the course of a year, the Democrats' aloof, tentative standard-bearer matured into a proud warrior. Liberal regulars trekked en masse to swing states to register voters, while lefty activists muffled qualms about their party's interventionism. Millions of Bush-bashing tracts passed through readers' hands, millions of checkbooks opened, and millions of first-time voters poked chads in the hope of ousting the president.

Yet for all their new determination, Democrats still find themselves staring up at a Himalayan challenge: how to make a majority of their compatriots associate their party with responsibility, guts, and purpose. For all Kerry's mettle, the Democrats retain a popular image as “soft” -- timid on defense, permissive on social issues, and, in their intellectual and personal style, open-minded, nuanced, and self-critical to a fault. Indeed, so ingrained have the linkages of liberalism with weakness become that few Democrats can recall a time when their creed and party bespoke strength, verve, and nerve. But if liberals wish to refashion themselves as tough and hardheaded, they need look no further than their honorable history in the mid-20th century. As several new books about liberalism's rise and fall demonstrate, this past is richer in courage and tenacity than today's portrayals would suggest.

Just two generations ago, the liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his circle -- cocky grapplers such as Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran, Benjamin V. Cohen, William O. Douglas, and Thurman Arnold -- represented what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his 1949 classic The Vital Center, called a “fighting faith.” An ardent New Dealer, Schlesinger was striving in the early Cold War years to keep his party from reverting to what he called its fuzzy-minded, doughface tradition -- the taste for sentimentality and utopianism embodied by the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace. Under FDR, Schlesinger wrote, “American liberalism has had a positive and confident ring. It has stood for responsibility and for achievement … it has been the instrument of social change.”

That “positive and confident ring” is brought to life in The Fall of the House of Roosevelt, a memoir-cum-history by the noted journalist Michael Janeway. The son of Eliot Janeway -- himself a celebrated journalist and economist, a member of the New Dealers' circle, and, according to his son, a man of “lofty aspirations and a scrappy personal makeup” -- Michael Janeway uses his father's life as a vehicle for exploring New Deal liberalism and its fate. With fresh detail and affecting vignettes, rendered in beautiful, evocative prose, Janeway captures the New Dealers' keenness for action, their readiness to use government for social change, even -- or especially -- in the face of a nasty fight. Janeway quotes the “gladiatorial words” of the Columbia University economist Rexford Tugwell, a charter member of Roosevelt's fabled brain trust:

I am strong,

I am big and well-made,

I am muscled and lean and nervous,

I am frank and sure and incisive …

My plans are fashioned and practical;

I shall roll up my sleeves --

make America over!

Liberalism thrived under Roosevelt and his can-do enthusiasts, Janeway proposes, not just because they relished action but because their ideas themselves were vigorous. Breaking from their Wilsonian forbears, they gave up moralism for pragmatism. “They saw process as secondary to results,” Janeway writes, even though it “opened them to charges of using ends to justify means.” Janeway argues that two key “fiercely modern” staples of New Deal thought, legal realism and Keynesian economics, gave Roosevelt's liberalism its iconoclasm and efficacy. Legal realism exploded the fiction of timeless truths in jurisprudence, clearing the way for humane, flexible responses to new challenges. Keynesianism refuted the reigning fatalism about capitalism's harshness by lunging for the dials of economic fine-tuning. What Corcoran, Cohen, and FDR's other economic advisers shared with Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, and the legal realists was a comfort with the exercise of power, not for private agendas but for public improvement. Entrusted with power, government officials had to use it for the public good.

Janeway identifies a similar eagerness to use power for progressive ends in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, himself a sometime member of the House of Roosevelt. Having arrived in Washington in 1937, LBJ won FDR's favor and stayed close to the New Dealers thereafter. From Roosevelt, one New Dealer told Janeway, Johnson learned “that whatever happens to people is a concern of government; that government is something much more than collecting taxes and keeping the peace.” As president, Johnson spoke of “fulfilling FDR's mission” and, according to his aide Bill Moyers, “never really liked the term ‘Great Society' … as much as he liked ‘the New Deal.'” Janeway reminds us of the continuities between the New Deal and the Great Society that historians, dwelling on the differences, have often obscured -- most important, a bottom-line devotion to equal opportunity.

The men and women of the House of Roosevelt believed in equal opportunity partly because of their personal experiences. Many of them, Janeway writes, “were born to Irish or Jewish immigrant families, invading the WASP halls of power in Washington for the first time in force, like a flying wedge” and managed to “rewrite the rules for admission to American elite circles.”

A similar quest for admission organizes Geoffrey Kabaservice's superb study The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment. Though primarily a biography of Yale University's last great president, who served from 1963 to 1977, The Guardians sets Brewster's career alongside the parallel stories of like-minded members of what came to be called “the Establishment,” such as McGeorge Bundy, Cyrus Vance, John Lindsay, and Elliot Richardson. Despite coming from aristocratic backgrounds quite different from most of Janeway's subjects, these Establishment figures agreed that America should embrace its future as a diverse and open society of opportunity -- and saw themselves as the ones positioned to superintend the transition.

Given their pedigrees, fondness for tradition, and clubby gentility, these men could as easily be labeled “conservative” as “liberal.” Many were Republicans -- although their GOP of noblesse oblige and civic virtue scarcely resembled today's alliance of Sun Belt moguls and Bible Belt anti-modernists. Indeed, Kabaservice at one point situates them in the “now-forgotten postwar movement called the new conservatism” (not to be confused with neoconservatism) -- the effort to articulate a public philosophy that would temper capitalism with traditional notions of virtue. This philosophy, Kabaservice notes, “was not far from the conservative liberalism of ‘vital centrists' like Schlesinger and the anti-Communist liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action [ADA].” Although Kabaservice hits a false note in calling Schlesinger's and ADA's liberalism “conservative” -- “moderate” would be more accurate -- the larger point is spot-on: Brewster and his crowd, though harboring a greater measure of moralism in their outlook, otherwise resembled the hard-boiled Cold War liberals and their New Deal progenitors in seeing government as an indispensable protector of civil rights, economic security, and equal access to America's bounty.

These liberal Republicans also displayed the same eagerness as the Rooseveltians for the uses of power. They jumped at the chance to bring Yale and other elite universities into an egalitarian age, to tackle the urban problems of poverty and decay, to channel the discontents of a young generation toward constructive ends. Some of these efforts, such as Lindsay's struggle to captain New York City amid the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s, ended largely in failure. But given the poisonous Kulturkampf of the day, what's remarkable is how often they navigated the challenges before them, particularly Brewster.

Central to Kabaservice's story is Brewster's brazen plan to revolutionize Yale's admissions process while boosting its academic standards. Under his leadership, Yale ripened from a complacent training ground for elite gentlemen into an awesome powerhouse of scholarship and learning. Cutting back on mediocre prep-school legacies, Brewster threw open the university's doors to Jews, blacks, women, and public-high-school graduates of high intellectual caliber and a vast variety of talents, even as he maintained its hoary mission of instilling an ethic of public leadership. Not surprisingly, Brewster, like FDR, drew fire as a traitor to his class, notably from alumni who fumed at the burial of Old Yale. But he reveled in the fight and determined to win, repulsing challenges to his leadership from the likes of William F. Buckley Jr., who sought to parlay alumni outrage into a seat on Yale's governing board. Although Brewster ultimately yielded ground on legacy admissions, he broke down traditional barriers to women and minorities and raised the university's scholarly caliber.

Brewster's finest hour came during the Vietnam War, when militancy roiled universities nationwide. Unlike the presidents of Harvard and Columbia, who dashed their careers and polarized their campuses by precipitately using police force against student protesters, Brewster, when his turn came, shrewdly cooled a volatile situation. As Kabaservice relays in his riveting account, in May 1970, after Richard Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the National Guard's killing of four students at Kent State, campuses everywhere erupted in weeks-long protests. In New Haven, the murder trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale added the gasoline of racial tension to the combustible mix. Instead of capitulating or cracking down, though, Brewster showed enough respect for his students' grievances to retain their affection, persuaded the faculty to make classes optional at the end of the school year to defuse a potential student strike, and personally led a delegation of students to meet with Washington powerbrokers, all the while seeming “dashing,” “energized by the tension,” and eminently sure of himself. Yale emerged from the turmoil, as from Brewster's admissions overhaul, decidedly stronger.

Brewster's “vision of excellence, community, and relevance,” Kabaservice concludes, “provides an alternative model of the 1960s, one in which adult perspective worked with youthful energy and imagination to make progress. In the national context, Yale's history under Brewster still represents the path not taken.” Indeed, if Brewster's story at Yale ended happily, the Establishment fared less well nationally. Bundy languished in disgrace after helping to trap the country in the Vietnam quagmire. Lindsay, having slighted the demands of New York's aggrieved ethnic working class, ran an underwhelming presidential campaign in 1972 and “wandered in the political wilderness” before succumbing to illness and financial ruin. Both cases showed how the Establishment's buoyant self-confidence could curdle into arrogance. Underestimating the rising currents of populist anger, these members of the Establishment and other liberal leaders lost sight of the need for the democratic responsiveness that had characterized the New Dealers in their heyday. “Their disconnection from the multitude, and their unwillingness to pander to the lowest denominator,” Kabaservice concludes, “meant that their enemies could portray them as enemies of the common people -- the remnants of a decaying WASP aristocracy clinging to power.”

The same fate befell many of Janeway's New Dealers. Abe Fortas, Clark Clifford, and Eliot Janeway himself cut corners in financial matters late in life, as if privately rewarding themselves for their decades of service; but when called to account, they no longer had any reservoir of popular goodwill to draw on for support. And while Lyndon Johnson can't be caricatured as an anachronistic aristocrat, hubris was just as assuredly his tragic flaw. Deluding himself that he could not only repulse communism in Vietnam but also bring a Tennessee Valley Authority to the Mekong Delta, Johnson lost touch with popular sentiment on the war. “His exercise of power,” Janeway writes, “looked to the country like blind willfulness.”

The perception that government officials and cultural elites were indifferent to the plight of a beleaguered middle class -- along with more specific social challenges such as the civil-rights movement, the sexual revolution, and rising crime and welfare rolls -- fed the late-1960s backlash against liberalism. But as these two books establish, it was the Vietnam War that brought popular frustration with liberalism to a head. And as Dominic Sandbrook's astute and gracefully written Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism shows, liberalism's course after Vietnam was just as corrosive to its public standing as was the war itself.

Baby boomers today warmly commemorate McCarthy for his genuinely heroic decision to enter the 1968 New Hampshire primary as an anti-war candidate -- and for nearly scoring a historic upset. Indeed, his near upset was itself historic, helping to persuade Johnson to forsake an effort to win a second term. But in this refreshingly cold-eyed assessment, Sandbrook suggests that the senator ultimately did more to dissipate the electric energy of the anti-war left than to channel it. Although Sandbrook's book has its limitations, notably a sometimes thin grasp of American political traditions, Eugene McCarthy nonetheless makes good on its title's promise to use the career of a second-rank figure to tell a larger, more important story.

Too well-researched and fair-minded to be called a takedown or hatchet job, Sandbrook's book is still a revisionist account. McCarthy emerges as a headstrong narcissist who cruelly gathered the hopes of crisis-stricken liberal Americans questing for a new direction and then discarded them in the snows of New Hampshire. Even before 1968, we see McCarthy's laziness as a senator, his resentment at being overshadowed by a Catholic contemporary, John F. Kennedy, and his preening self-image as too noble for the messy business of politics. After his breakthrough performance in the New Hampshire primary, however, McCarthy's worst qualities became more, not less, dominant. He snubbed reporters, petulantly refused to work at his speeches, and willfully persisted in disappointing his supporters, as though he fancied himself a political Miles Davis, enhancing his cool by turning his back on his audiences. One reads with morbid fascination as Sandbrook chronicles McCarthy's juvenile self-destruction: “On one occasion he gave a talk in Los Angeles before the audience arrived; on another, he kept the New York Times columnist James Reston waiting while he composed a poem about wolverines. … When the television host Johnny Carson asked him if he would be a ‘good president,' McCarthy replied with a grin, ‘I think I would be adequate.'” He canceled appointments with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, ignored phone calls from powerful governors, and discounted George McGovern's proposal to endorse him.

After 1968, McCarthy embarked on a series of doomed pursuits that Sandbrook describes with a mix of understated humor and a sense of the tragic. Resentful of countless adversaries, McCarthy wrote unreadable books and ran perennially for president, à la Harold Stassen, as a sideshow in Democratic primaries or, later, on third-party tickets. He endorsed Ronald Reagan for president in 1980 largely out of spite for his old rival Walter Mondale, whom he repeatedly said had “the soul of a vice president.” His post–1968 career, Sandbrook writes, “had been a study in frustration. His quixotic enterprises attracted little public attention and confirmed the general impression that he was an unruly, disloyal eccentric who had squandered his own reputation in a series of self-indulgent campaigns that never ended in victory and left little impact on American politics and society.”

Although McCarthy marginalized himself in the Democratic Party, he kept all too alive the dough-face strain of liberalism -- utopian, high-minded to a fault, more anxious than eager about using power. In this respect, McCarthy was the heir not to the rough-and-ready Rooseveltians, or to those whom Theodore White called the “action intellectuals” of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but to the great Democratic failure of the postwar years, Adlai Stevenson. McCarthy, after all, nominated Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic convention in a bid to derail Kennedy's juggernaut -- a telling choice of allegiance. The twice-beaten Stevenson still inspired many of his egghead followers at that point with his lofty rhetoric (although the most important intellectuals, such as Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, had defected to Kennedy, knowing it was time to back a winner). But Stevenson had also by 1960 left no doubt about his essence as a perpetual loser who incorrigibly viewed politics as squalid and beneath him. “Better we lose the election than mislead the people, and better we lose than misgovern the people,” he said in 1952 -- and unlike other politicians who mouthed such sentiments, he believed it. Revealingly, McCarthy referred to Stevenson as “the purest politician of our time,” and the preference for purity over victory, evident even in McCarthy's early career, foretold his destiny of irrelevancy.

Yet for more than three decades now many liberals have been in thrall to a Stevensonian-McCarthyesque mentality that persists in seeing politics as debased and imagines nobility in defeat. In politics and policy alike, some liberals have become resolutely squeamish about the use of power, whether as a tool of foreign policy, an instrument of social betterment, or a weapon in the great American electoral fray. One notable recent exception, of course, was Bill Clinton, whose besting of Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr united leftists and liberals much as John Kerry's campaign did. On the other hand, even Clinton often hesitated to use power, repeatedly recoiling from nomination fights and legislative challenges and seeking to appease unappeasable constituencies. For all his love of politics and the presidency, he, too, could display a debilitating ambivalence toward power.

To be sure, requiring humility in high office is essential if America is to avoid another Richard Nixon (or George W. Bush). To evince no reluctance to wield power is to risk an arrogance that can rupture democratic bonds, as it did so disastrously during Vietnam. But today's liberals should also remember what their forbears knew in their bones not so long ago: that in a democracy, leaders are given power by the people; if you use it on their behalf, they not only appreciate it but admire it -- and they want you to continue to wield it.

David Greenberg, a professor at Rutgers University, is a columnist for Slate and the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.

You may also like