Stephen Graubard: “He Could be Provocative in His Writings About the White House”

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Stephen Graubard, Journal Editor and Provocative Historian, Dies at 96”:

Stephen R. Graubard, the editor of the journal Daedalus for almost 40 years and a scholar best known for books on the presidency, died at his home in Manhattan.

Dr. Graubard, who taught for many years at Harvard University and then at Brown, could be provocative in his writings about the White House, which included the 2004 book “Command of Office: How War, Secrecy and Deception Transformed the Presidency, From Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush.” In that book, he argued that the presidency at the end of the 20th century was not at all what the Founders had imagined.

“An America that rebelled against the mother country,” he wrote, “imagining it would have no further truck with kings, courtiers or warriors, has since the beginning of the twentieth century known all, rarely so identified, but unmistakably recognizable as such.”

World events played a part in the expansion of the office, but so did complacency.

“The American democracy,” he wrote, “transformed in the course of the long twentieth century, takes its form today in very considerable measure because of what these presidents elected to do but also what public opinion allowed them to do.”

As for the men who held the office, most left him unimpressed. John F. Kennedy, he wrote in 2009, “was perhaps the most overrated of the postwar presidents.” Bill Clinton’s legacy “proved insubstantial, made to appear considerable only by comparison with that of his successor.”

And that successor, George W. Bush? “The year 2001 began an eight-year presidential hiatus,” Dr. Graubard wrote, “a time of war and intellectual stagnation.”

He gave Mr. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, his own treatment in an unflattering 1992 book, “Mr. Bush’s War: Adventures in the Politics of Illusion.” But presidencies weren’t his only passion.

As editor of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he oversaw theme issues on a wide range of subjects, many of which were expanded into books edited or coedited by him.

“Books, Bricks and Bytes: Libraries in the 21st Century” was inspired by the fact that, as Dr. Graubard wrote, “Libraries are today experiencing a technological revolution that goes well beyond anything that has existed since the invention of printing.” Its essayists, who included James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, examined the transformations underway at libraries both in the United States and abroad.

“Minnesota, Real & Imagined: Essays on the State and Its Culture” was inspired by conversations he had with European acquaintances who told him that they knew a lot about the East and West Coasts of the United States but not much else.

Dr. Graubard was a frequent essayist himself, weighing in with strong opinions in journals and newspapers, and he was not shy about whom he took on. In a 1988 opinion essay in The New York Times, he challenged remarks made by William J. Bennett, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and a prominent conservative voice, who had attacked Stanford University over curriculum changes that Mr. Bennett thought slighted classic texts and traditional courses on Western civilization.

“The glory of our university system is that curriculum reformations occur regularly,” Dr. Graubard wrote, “that many have taken place in the last half century, that different institutions — all self-governing — have selected different curriculum paths, and that all this has happened without the stentorian interventions of Federal appointees.

“The supreme irony of today’s so-called debate is that if Western civilization can be characterized by a single attribute, it is its historic refusal to remain static, to accept tradition as inviolable.”

Stephen Richards Graubard was born on Dec. 5, 1924, in Brooklyn….He served in the Army during World War II, then earned a bachelor’s degree at George Washington University in 1945 and a master’s degree the next year at Harvard. While earning his Ph.D. there in 1951, his fellow graduate students included Henry A. Kissinger; in 1973 he would make him the subject of a book, “Kissinger: Portrait of a Mind.”

Dr. Graubard began teaching at Harvard while still a graduate student and remained there until the mid-1960s, when he moved to Brown.

He became editor of Daedalus in 1961. The theme issues he oversaw, featuring articles by leading scholars in a wide range of fields, might be as relatively timeless as “America’s Childhood,” which featured essays on schools, the influence of television on children and other subjects. Or they might have the urgency of the headlines of the moment, as with a two-part exploration of “Living With AIDS” published in 1989 (whose writers included Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the architect of the nation’s AIDS relief program).

Dr. Graubard remained editor until 1999.

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

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