...no 20th-century American intellectual devoted himself to that purpose more consistently than the subject of the new biography Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian. The question is whether his achievements matched his ambition ...Aldous gracefully balances an appreciation for his subject’s talents as a writer of narratives and speeches with an acknowledgment of his shortcomings as a political analyst and aide ...misses an opportunity to examine how Schlesinger’s gradual loss of intellectual influence mirrored the crisis of American liberalism itself ... Schlesinger’s liberal panegyrics can still be read with pleasure, even if one winces at his reluctance to abide any serious criticism of his idols.
Necessary or no, Mr. Aldous’s biography is full of interest, not least on the subject of the relation of intellectuals to power. As a biographer, Mr. Aldous’s prose is cool and even-handed, though from time to time he lapses into such overworked and imprecise vogue words as 'charismatic,' 'optics,' 'take' (for 'view') and the invariably hyperbolic “seminal.” His own politics, pleasing to report, do not come into play, and at the end of his book one doesn’t know what they might be. He is properly critical of his subject’s self-justifications and no less properly skeptical about the putative integrity of politicians ... The Imperial Historian is especially good on the inner conflicts of presidential politics.
Schlesinger is not quite a full treatment: The book has much less to say about his scholarship, despite its enduring influence, than his 'near addiction to the narcotic of political battle,' as Aldous puts it, and devotes fewer than 30 pages to the last four decades of his life, productive though they were. That aside, it is a convincing portrait, rendered with skill and sensitivity, sympathetic toward its subject while capturing the quirks that made him, in the words of one contemporary, 'so Arthurish.'