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Most scholars and pundits today view Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy as aggressive liberal leaders, while viewing Schlesinger’s famous histories of their presidencies as celebrations of their steadfast progressive leadership. A more careful reading of Schlesinger’s work demonstrates that he preferred an ironic political outlook emphasizing the virtues of restraint, patience, and discipline. For Schlesinger, Roosevelt and Kennedy were liberal heroes and models as much because they respected the constraints on their power and ideals as because they tested traditional institutions and redefined the boundaries of presidential power.
Aggressive liberalism involves the use of inspirational rhetoric and cunning political tactics to expand civil liberties and insure economic equality. Schlesinger’s emphasis on the crucial role that irony has played and should play in liberalism poses a challenge to the aggressive liberalism advocated by liberal activists, political thinkers, and pundits. That his counsel was grounded in conservative insights as well as liberal values makes it accessible to leaders across the political spectrum.
“Emile Lester skillfully makes the case that Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s political thought has been both widely misunderstood and underappreciated. Here the author of A Thousand Days, often dismissed as a hagiographer, emerges as a far more nuanced and substantial thinker than his critics allow, and as a major intellectual figure not just of his own time but also for ours.”
—Richard Aldous, author of Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian
“Scholars of presidential leadership will profit from this illuminating analysis of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s account of ‘ironic liberalism’ and its balance of idealistic impulse and realistic restraint in the presidencies of FDR and JFK.”
—John Jeffries, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
“This book is both a scholarly treatment of Schlesinger as a political theorist and an engagement with other political theorists through Schlesinger’s thought. This is, in my opinion, political theory at its best. And the fact that Lester does it through the medium of a historian is especially impressive.”
—Benjamin Kleinerman, Michigan State University