Reading Arthur Schlesinger

Isn’t it strange that the only other American president whose father had also been president came to power like George W Bush, despite losing the popular election?  John Quincy Adams, who like Bush also shared his father’s first name, tried to reach out to the opposition when he gave his inaugural address in 1825. Not Bush. “He acted as if he had won in a landslide — and he got away with it,” wrote the American historian, Arthur Schlesinger (picture from Washington Post).

He drew the contrast between the two men in his last book, War and the American Presidency, published three years ago. I got hold of the slim paperback after his death on Feb 28 at the age of 89. He was a liberal close to President John Kennedy — and a fierce critic of Bush and the Iraq war. He condemned Bush for declaring war on false evidence — no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction could be found — and using the war to increase the powers of the state and security agencies.

Bush attacked Iraq despite protests from allies such as Germany and France. The unilateral action he took was standard US policy in the 18th and 19th centuries when America avoided foreign alliances, said Schlesinger. But after the Second World War, America built up alliances to counter the Soviet threat and this multilateralism helped it win the Cold War, he added. Abandoning that policy, Bush, in his opinion, ended up in a mess.

The book is not just a critique of Bush and the Iraq war. It also looks at how political parties have become less relevant with politicians using television and opinion polls to address the voters and find out what they want. It also discusses the effect of globalisation and the Internet. But it adds:

“The most fateful source (of change) in the United States is race … Minorities seek full membership in the larger American society.”

Yes, indeed. Barack Obama is campaigning to be the next US president. And no one’s writing him off.

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