James Chace was what an intellectual, a citizen, and a friend ought to be. He had the soul and style of a poet, a profound sense of history, was both rooted in the place from where he originally came and cosmopolitan, a man of the world and the republic of letters, and whose liberalism of spirit and politics derived from his wide experiences but ultimately his being as an inviolate American.
“They love you in New York,” he almost always said when I visited him from Washington. It was his standard greeting. He seemed to be the quintessential New Yorker, who knew everybody and had read everything. He had spent his youth in smoky clubs discovering Billie Holiday, edited the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, was a habitué of cafes in the Village and the Century Association, and taught at Columbia University and up the Hudson at Bard College. He was a bundle of highly focused nervous energy, hardly reduced by having reached his 70s. Just the other week, he recalled that his mother perpetually told him he was possessed by St. Vitus. His enthusiasm was infectious, his conversation sparkling and far-ranging, his interest in people genuine and endless, and his generosity boundless. His gift was himself. As an editor of various magazines and at The New York Times Book Review, he had a sixth sense of who was best to write about any subject, what underlying ideas should be brought to the surface, how to structure a piece, and where to cut to make the prose gem-like. His protégés, buoyed by his encouragement, were legion, and they aspired to write as clearly and think as well as he did.
But James was not a native New Yorker, a fact of origin easily detected by his inimitable accent. He was from Fall River, Massachusetts, the youngest son of a declassed Yankee family that had lost it all in the Depression. His grandfather, whose portrait he kept behind his desk at home, had been the president of the Massachusetts Senate. His memoir about growing up, What We Had, captured the loss of family position and glory. The title came from a line of poetry by his first wife, Jean Valentine: “What we had, we have.” Like James, the book was lucid, emotionally literate as well as historically resonant, and deeply affecting without being sentimental.
James wrote for the literary journal at Harvard, The Advocate, was drafted into the Army, where he served as a French interpreter in Paris and Verdun, and observed France endure the agony of its Algerian war. In Paris afterward, living the dream of the expatriate artist, and while writing a novel, he also did a bit of intelligence work for the CIA, essentially rewriting Le Monde every morning as he drank his coffee.
The Algerian conflict made a lasting impression on him. It was the prism through which he saw the strategic catastrophes of Vietnam and Iraq. From the beginning, he foresaw with exacting accuracy how the Iraq adventure has turned out, and he lamented the repetition of our own version of the French war in Algeria. He believed that a country that could not realize its ends would waste its means. In one sense, his insight seemed drawn from his family story. But he was also a rare American without illusions, the opposite of Graham Greene's “Quiet American,” one who understood others' history and could see that ideology and even idealism removed from realities could be ruinous. His post-Vietnam book Solvency, published in 1981, measured that contradiction.
James was immersed in the circles of foreign policy without ever becoming a policy-maker or ever desiring to be one. Perhaps it was his literary sensibility that kept him on the outskirts of bureaucracy. Above all of his various professional accomplishments, he was extraordinarily proud of having been made a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, an award bestowed by the French government.
With the end of the Cold War, the old foreign-policy system was in radical disarray, and James wrote in 1992 The Consequences of the Peace, after John Maynard Keynes' post-World War I Consequences of the War. In it, he began to spell out a new liberal internationalism that was not constricted by the bipolar conflict with the Soviet Union. James was always a liberal and an internationalist, just as those who framed U.S. policy in the Cold War were. James' hero became the subject of his brilliant biography, Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, published in 1998. I brought James to discuss the book with two of its most avid readers, President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush, seeking to demonstrate his hitherto invisible interest in foreign policy, claimed he had read it, too.
James and I had spoken of post-Cold War policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. His thinking was vital in my writing of my book, Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War, describing the paralysis of American politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the face of fundamental change. I called the last chapter, “Absent at the Creation,” after Acheson's famous memoir, Present at the Creation. James, of course, was already thinking about writing his Acheson biography.
During the 1992 campaign, James and I co-authored an article for The New York Times Magazine on the need to crystallize an idea of post-Cold War liberal internationalism in the tradition that fused national interest and values. In 1996, our conversations were especially productive. We were able to describe the concept of the United States as the guarantor of stability as the sole superpower within the framework of multinational institutions, but I was intent on boiling it down to a phrase. Finally, together, we hit on it: “indispensable nation.” Eureka! I passed it on first to Madeleine Albright, at the time the United Nations ambassador, and then to the president.
That same year, James became the indispensable man in helping me introduce Hillary Clinton to aspects of New York she had not known before. Hillary was besieged with the pseudo-scandal of Whitewater, dragged in a perp walk before the klieg lights by Ken Starr, and pounded by a press corps driven by Starr's office's leaks. I suggested that she get some perspective outside the hothouse of Washington. James acted as the host of a luncheon at the Century attended by several dozen of the city's most influential editors and publishers, who had never met her. Afterward, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that James and I had helped her craft. Astonishingly, this slice of New York had never been exposed to her before. Both events went spectacularly well -- “They love you in New York, Mrs. Clinton,” James told her -- and Hillary began to get the idea that New York might be the place for her sometime in the future.
James, denizen of New York and Paris, was most himself at his summer home on Narragansett Bay at Westpost Harbor, Rhode Island, just across the water from his native Massachusetts. Some of his boyhood friends lived nearby, and he watched Red Sox games with them. It was here that he wrote much of his critically acclaimed book 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs -- The Election That Changed the Country, published this year. James had turned to early 20th century American history for lessons at the beginning of the 21st for a new progressivism to expand democracy, a reinvented modern presidency and reshaped liberal internationalism.
In the summer and fall of this year, James was busily writing articles, including one for The New York Review of Books that dealt with U.S. policy toward Iraq. James applied his understanding of the American tradition in foreign policy to the current fiasco. It is worth quoting him:
But Iraq in 2003 was not liberated France in 1944; nor can the emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 serve as a model for imposing liberal democracy in Iraq. This has not prevented the U.S. from trying to impose its own protégés on Iraq, as if it were postwar Germany.
Nonetheless, strategic failure and violent day-to-day bundling have their consequences, and American history suggests that such ill-conceived adventures as the Iraq war and occupation could lead the U.S. to turn away from imperial aspirations … .
Once again, James cited “the prudential realism that characterized most of the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. Such an approach, reflecting a desire to, in Dean Acheson's words, 'limit objectives, to get ourselves away from the search for the absolute,' also implies that in pursuing national interests, American leaders must seek allies among other governments and peoples who see those interests as coinciding with their own and who are willing to collaborate with the United States in the growing numbers of international institutions, governmental and nongovernmental.”
By now, James had begun work on his new book, a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French founding father of our own country. What could be a more apt topic at a time when Bush has fostered such antipathy with our oldest ally? James traveled to Paris, with his wonderful companion, Joan Bingham, herself a book publisher, and was thrilled to gain admittance to unplumbed archives and to decipher the scrawl of Lafayette and his contemporaries.
As full of energy, curiosity and possibility as ever, his powers at their peak, suddenly his light went out. Those who knew him are deprived of his writing, knowledge and wisdom. Those who loved him have lost the truest friend.
I first encountered James Chace in one of life's inevitably humiliating moments: my first serious job interview after college. He was editing Foreign Affairs, and I wanted to be a journalist -- but, unfortunately, despite a bachelor's in American History from Yale, I knew nothing about contemporary foreign affairs. This soon became apparent as James gently quizzed me on this or that global crisis, in the stately Park Avenue offices of the Council on Foreign Relations. I can still recall the perspiration dripping literally down my sides, as my face grew redder and redder and my future shrank before me. Needless to say, I didn't get hired.
But remarkably for anyone else, and typically for James, this wasn't the end of the story. More than any other mandarin of his generation that I have known, James was a born mentor who seemed to delight in encouraging and advising younger people. And while his advice to me was that I steer clear of Foreign Affairs, he had many other thoughts about where I might go, and whom I might see. When I did in fact manage to snag a job, at The Wall Street Journal, he was amazingly generous in continuing to keep up. It helped, too, that I sat just a few desks away from his wife at that time, Susan Chace, a magical poet with a knack for understanding the internal machinations of IBM. But on his own, James took an interest in a tremendous number of fresh graduates as they tried to find their way into the professional world. He practically ran an underground railroad.
James was not just a bridge between generations and between different social circles but also between different professional disciplines. He was a brilliant conversationalist who could talk as easily about French literature as he could about the war in Iraq. He had reasoned and richly informed political views, which were always worth listening to, but he wasn't doctrinaire. Because of this, he seemed a throwback to a better era in world affairs, when people of differing views could still talk, and possibly even learn something by listening. Although he had strong opinions, his respect for others showed in the reviews he wrote, which were usually gentle, even when in disagreement. He was, simply, a great appreciator. He brought a novelist's eye to character, and to life's ironies, which was yet another reason he was such fun to talk with.
In recent years, James had the luck to meet Joan Bingham, who shared his intense appreciation of books, politics, and people. Together, when they were in town, they could seem like a Washington version of the Thin Man movies' Nick and Nora. Witty, smart, amused, and amusing, they seemed to bring everyone else to life. In the midst of whatever social or professional whirl they were in, though, James still seemed to find time to listen, to size up whatever one's problem of the moment was, and to be a very wise and generous friend.
There are many ways to express how valuable James Chace's voice was, and how irreplaceable, but a simple way to begin is to explain the impact he had on others. Obviously his books were important to all of us, those who knew him and those who did not. But the gift of his counsel was no less precious. Through his editorial suggestions, his phone calls, and his endlessly entertaining conversation, he made countless younger writers feel connected to the great adventure of his life.
I would not dare to call myself a Jamesian disciple in the traditional sense; I never studied with him, or had any professional association with him. But when I arrived in Washington as a tenderfoot White House speechwriter in 1997, I had the good fortune to encounter him one evening. It would be difficult to underestimate how little social capital I had to offer him; he had far higher-ranking acquaintances in the Clinton administration than I ever did. But it never seemed to matter with James. He stuck with me for reasons that I will never understand, but for which I will always be grateful.
Perhaps there was a twinge of regional loyalty. He came from Fall River, Massachusetts, and I from Providence, Rhode Island, two old factory towns staring grimly at each other across 15 miles of Route 195 in southeastern New England. When we encountered each other in the unforgiving terrain of the Beltway, it was like two Manx fishermen hailing each other on the Irish Sea, relieved to hear their dying language one more time. Three decades separated us, but in our different times we both made the short trip to Harvard University (short in the simplest sense, incomparably distant in others). There we fell briefly in love with French literature before returning to earth and the more sensible realm of American history.
No matter how serious the subject matter we discussed, there was a mischievous glint in James' eye that no schoolmaster or administration official had ever been able to eradicate. It was symbolic of his irreverence that he was undertaking a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette at the nadir of the 227-year U.S.-France alliance (our oldest; though perhaps it is premature to use the word “nadir,” as George W. Bush may well be re-elected).
This may have proceeded from a shrewd scholar's sense that an important historical actor was underappreciated, but at some subterranean level, it must also have reflected his iconoclastic conviction that France still matters to America. Not only in the strictly geopolitical sense, as a nation that may irritate us at times, but still wields considerable economic and political clout in Europe and around the world (and, paradoxically, far more clout now than it did before the Republican attacks began -- another example of our broken diplomacy). But also in the larger sense that ideas matter, and particularly ideas about the individual worth of human beings, the constellation of values that exploded onto the scene with the French Enlightenment, helping to make our first halting steps as a nation conceivable, and then actual. If only Voltaire were alive to satirize the modern Versailles nestled along the Potomac, a world of courtiers and hypocrites prattling of “freedom” and “liberty” while suppressing civil liberties, stifling dissent, and elevating religion over science.
James died in Paris while researching his new book, and by coincidence I was flying to Paris a few days later to attend a history conference and give a talk to a group of Democrats Abroad. I was lucky to attend a lunch in his honor with a small group of his closest friends. One of them, the journalist Alan Riding, published a hard-hitting article a couple days later in the International Herald Tribune that explored the tremendous decline of the public intellectual in Europe. James was not mentioned in the piece, but his spirit pervaded it, for who else in the United States did more to combine a historian's sense of the past with a foreign-policy realist's sense of the present? It is a cliché to say, “We will not see his like again,” but all too plainly true. Thucydides still advises readers that when a society cultivates too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors, it allows its thinking to be done by cowards and its fighting by fools. While James was alive, he kept us alert to both dangers.
I didn't know James Chace for very long. We met, I think, in 2002, at a dinner party at the home of a mutual friend in New York. After I later moved to Washington, he and Joan Bingham, his longtime companion, graciously invited my wife and me to dinner. I next saw him (and for the last time, alas) at the Washington party for his latest book, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs -- The Election That Changed the Country. In between we had a series of conversations, which I'll compress into one meeting, as I edited a piece he wrote for me here at the Prospect (more on that later). And that's it: Our paths crossed four times.
But one didn't need to know James for very long to feel oddly and intensely close to him. His intellectual range certainly impressed me when we met, but it was not surprising; as one who had read him over the years, I'd expected that. But what did surprise me was his immediate and unforced warmth. He treated me as an equal from the moment we met -- a status of which I was hardly deserving, but one with which James casually ensured I felt comfortable.
It took me a little while to see this, I confess, because James had a rather donnish manner about him -- his remote and not-quite-identifiable accent and his casual erudition, ranging over this subject and that, impressed me as being the manner and equipment of a man who belonged at least at Harvard and more likely at Oxford. But he was the furthest thing from a lordly doyen. There are people who show off their erudition, intent on owning a conversation, and there are people who share it, eager to engage in colloquy. James was very much the latter type. That he knew more about the subject at hand than most everyone else at the table was a fact he tried, if anything, to conceal, or at least to be extremely polite about. He was, to put it simply, an extremely kind man.
As to the James Chace readers had a chance to know: It is particularly cruel that we lost him right now. Among American intellectuals who focused on foreign affairs, he was perhaps the greatest expositor of the view that the United States has a responsibility both to assert its power when needed and to live up to it moral responsibilities to the rest of the world. Conservatives have typically affirmed the former without showing much interest in the latter. Post-Vietnam liberals have insisted on the latter without granting the necessity of the former. This has been, in a nutshell, contemporary liberalism's foreign-policy problem, and it is a problem for which James Chace offered a solution.
By taking us back to Dean Acheson, the subject of his acclaimed biography and the work for which he is best known, James reminded us of a liberalism that preceded the post-Vietnam resistance to the idea that America could be a force for good in the world. At the same time, he was a blistering critic of the notion that American assertion of power was a good in and of itself. Indeed, among the things he most admired about Acheson, he once told me, were Acheson's restraint late in his career in both Iran and Guatemala, when hard-liners were pressing for CIA-sponsored coups in both countries and Acheson resisted, predicting accurately that such interventions would set America on a disastrous course. (Acheson demurred in 1952; the next year, with Dwight Eisenhower in office, Acheson's successor, John Foster Dulles, green-lighted both coups, and we were off to the geopolitical races with no turning back.)
It struck me that the post-September 11 moment -- with neoconservative hegemonic objectives on a rampage, and Democrats wholly lacking the imagination to respond -- was just the right time to remind liberal readers of a tradition that Vietnam-era liberals had rejected but that deserved reexamination now. When I called James to discuss it, he instantly agreed, and he filed this piece. Its polemical thrust was aimed, properly, at the neoconservatives for trying to make policy on the basis of moral absolutes that prevented them from seeing necessary shades of gray; James was a firm opponent of the war in Iraq and the broader imperatives in whose name the war was fought. But it was our hope that liberals would read the piece and remember a tradition of which they should be (for the most part) proud, and from which they might well borrow today as they formulate a response to neoconservatism. If you asked me to name the three pieces I've published that I'm proudest of in the year I've been here, this would certainly be one.
We last spoke around Labor Day, when we agreed that we'd wait to see who won the election and think about a second piece. I was looking forward to a long working relationship. Life doesn't always cooperate in such thoughts, but I'm immeasurably grateful for the brief one we had.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, author most recently of The Clinton Wars, is Washington bureau chief of salon.com. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Ted Widmer directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.
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