He was an unabashed liberal, a self proclaimed “New Deal” Democrat who pushed himself into the public’s consciousness with a combination of sheer brilliance and an astonishing output of the written word. Writing articles for publications as diverse as The Nation, Huffington Post, Ladies Home Journal, and TV Guide, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. also contributed to American scholarship, winning two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book awards for his Andrew Jackson biography and chronicles of the Kennedys.
In the end, he was stricken with a heart attack in a restaurant while dining with his family. For a man who could wax poetic about good food as easily as he could enthrall an audience with insider stories of the Kennedy White House, it is fitting indeed that he was taken while engaging in one of life’s pleasures he so boisterously enjoyed while nestled in the bosom of his family:
Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr. Schlesinger exhaustively examined the administrations of two prominent presidents, Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, against a vast background of regional and economic rivalries. He strongly argued that strong individuals like Jackson and Roosevelt could bend history.
The notes he took for President John F. Kennedy to use in writing his own history, became, after the presidentâ€™s assassination, grist for Mr. Schlesingerâ€™s own â€œA Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House,â€ winner of both the Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1966.
His 1978 book on the presidentâ€™s brother, â€œRobert Kennedy and His Times,â€ lauded the subject as the most politically creative man of his time, but acknowledged that Robert had played a larger role in trying to overthrow Castro than the author had acknowledged in â€œA Thousand Days.â€
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. may not have been America’s greatest historian. But his impact on American letters, American culture, and American politics was so profound that his influence surpassed even that of his famous father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. who pioneered the study of social history back in the 1920’s. This father-son tag team of insightful academics represented a true link with our past that echoes down to this day. The father was proud of the fact that he actually shook the hand of a man whose own father had served with George Washington in the Continental Army. That kind of reverence for the past was passed on to Arthur Jr.:
Mr. Schlesinger saw life as a walk through history. He wrote that he could not stroll down Fifth Avenue without wondering how the street and the people on it would have looked a hundred years ago.
â€œHe is willing to argue that the search for an understanding of the past is not simply an aesthetic exercise but a path to the understanding of our own time,â€ Alan Brinkley, the historian, wrote.
Mr. Schlesinger wore a trademark dotted bowtie, showed an acid wit and had a magnificent bounce to his step. Between marathons of writing as much as 5,000 words a day, he was a fixture at Georgetown salons when Washington was clubbier and more elitist; a lifelong aficionado of perfectly-blended martinis; and a man about New York, whether at Truman Capoteâ€™s famous parties or escorting Jacqueline Kennedy to the movies.
Some colleagues, perhaps jealous of his celebrity, grumbled about the historian’s flitting about the social scene in New York and Washington, going from party to party while being photographed with Hollywood starlets as well as the high and mighty of politics and industry. But what his critics failed to understand was there was a very good reason that Schlesinger was able to move in so many diverse and even contradictory social circles.
Quite simply, he was a very interesting man.
The range of his intellect was truly remarkable. He could talk about the intricacies of New Deal social policy one minute and expound on the perfection of a well mixed martini the next. By all accounts, he was a fascinating raconteur who mixed politics and history into a delicious mix of tall tale and scholarly lecture. When he held forth at gatherings of the powerful, people listened.
In recent years, he regularly appeared on television as an analyst as well as a partisan voice defending the Democrats and attacking Republicans. His politics reflected his roots as a New Deal Democrat which placed him at odds with the modern hard left on a number of occasions. A strong anti-Communist he was not enamored as many liberals of his generation with committing ground forces to Viet Nam. But once there, he argued for policies that echo hauntingly today.
In his 1967 book The Bitter Heritage: Viet Nam and American Democracy, Schlesinger resigned himself to fighting the war while offering a penetrating historical critique of our involvement:
When it comes to Viet Nam, Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. roosts neither with the hawks nor the all-out doves. Admittedly, he is unhappy that the U.S. ever got involved there, but he argues in this slender book, drawn chiefly from three recent magazine articles, that “our precipitate withdrawal now would have ominous reverberations throughout Asia.” He thinks the U.S. must “stop widening and Americanizing the war,” but he has no illusions about the cutthroat, terrorist tactics of the Viet Cong, and he does not want them to take over South Viet Nam. What, then, is the U.S. to do? Says Schlesinger: “We must oppose further widening of the war” by “holding the line in South Viet Nam…”
Schlesinger also argues that the U.S. should devote its resources more to “clear-and-hold” operations aimed at creating secure areas, than to “search-and-destroy missions, which drive the Viet Cong out of villages one day and permit them to slip back the next.” But he fails to note that no clear-and-hold strategy can succeed as long as guerrillas are permitted to terrorize the countrysideâ€”and it is the search-and-destroy sweeps that keep them on the run.
A vocal opponent of the war in Iraq as well as anything and everything Bush, Schlesinger’s last book skewered the Administration for their Middle East policies:
In his last book, â€œWar and the American Presidency,â€ published in 2004, Mr. Schlesinger challenged the foundations of the foreign policy of President George W. Bush, calling the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath â€œa ghastly mess.â€ He said the presidentâ€™s curbs on civil liberties would have the same result as similar actions throughout American history.
â€œWe hate ourselves in the morning,â€ he wrote.
But beyond the partisanship, beyond the man about town and debonair socialite, there was a serious, brilliant academic whose high standards and achingly beautiful prose made reading Schlesinger a pure joy.
His first Pulitzer for The Age of Jackson is still required reading for most college courses dealing with that period in American history. Its economic deterministic approach to the Jacksonian movement may be a little dated and the largely discredited theory of cyclical movements in American history – politics swinging like a pendulum between liberal and conservative ideologies – is perhaps a shallow construct. But there is no denying the careful scholarship and brilliant prose that brings the people and events of that period in history to life. Schlesinger incorporated the social history of the times to argue that Jacksonian democracy was not a movement made up of rough and ready frontiersmen allied with Jeffersonian yeoman farmers but a class struggle based on the idea of a centralized government – not unlike policies he supported as a New Dealer.
But the works he is known best for were the result of his friendship and admiration for John and Robert Kennedy. A supporter of Adlai Stevenson in 1960, Schlesinger was asked to work as a Special Assistant to President Kennedy for several reasons, not the least of which was the recognition by JFK that the historian would probably write about the Administration anyway:
In their 1970 book, â€œJohnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,â€ Kenneth P. Oâ€™Donnell and David F. Powers suggest that the new president saw some political risk in hiring such an unabashed liberal. He decided to keep the appointment quiet until another liberal, Chester Bowles, was confirmed as under secretary of state.
The authors, both Kennedy aides, said they asked Mr. Kennedy if he took Mr. Schlesinger on to write the official history of the administration. Mr. Kennedy said he would write it himself.
â€œBut Arthur will probably write his own,â€ the president said, â€œand it will be better for us if heâ€™s in the White House, seeing what goes on, instead of reading about it in The New York Times and Time magazine.â€
It is unclear exactly what was Schlesinger’s role in the Administration. His official title was misleading; special assistant for Latin American affairs and speech writer. Time Magazine at the time called him the Administration’s conduit to intellectuals. He was a regular at the impromptu seminars put on by Robert Kennedy at his house in Virginia and actually organized most of them. The lineup of intellectuals at these gatherings were truly impressive. Social critics, scientists, historians, military theorists, artists of all kinds – some historians point to the attendance by most of the influential members of the Kennedy Administration at these seminars as proof that much of the intellectual framework for the New Frontier was thrashed out during these sessions.
Following the assassination of JFK, Schlesinger wrote A Thousands Days, a national best seller and worthy of his second Pulitzer. Some may be dismissive of the hagiographic nature of the book (Gore Vidal called it “a political novel”), but there is no denying the power of the prose nor its fascinating glimpse into the center of American power as seen through the historian’s eye.
In 1968, Schlesinger latched on to Robert Kennedy’s ill fated campaign only to see that journey also end in tragedy. The book that emerged from Schlesinger’s pain 10 years later is, to my mind, his finest work; a two volume tour de force examination of not only Robert Kennedy and his campaign for the Presidency, but also the decade of the 1960’s and how the events and ideas that bubbled up from the street during that period changed America.
Schlesinger spent the intervening years studying and writing about violence and its connectedness to ideas and power. He wrestled with this subject for much of the 70’s (taking a break only to help bring down Nixon in his angry The Imperial Presidency) with his journey culminating in the ultimately healing biography of a man he obviously admired and felt great affection for. The book was personal, political, but also extraordinarily sourced and researched. It garnered him his second National Book Award.
Schlesinger may have been a liberal’s liberal. But that didn’t stop him from challenging political correctness nor the dominant New Left ideas regarding foreign policy and America’s role in the world. Not only a staunch anti-Communist, Schlesinger was an internationalist in the traditional sense. He saw America’s mission as bringing freedom to the world wherever possible while working with international institutions like the United Nations to solve conflicts. While his faith in the UN may have been misplaced, he never lost sight of American interests and the need to defend them.
Where he parted company with the new left was in some of their wackier ideas regarding social policy. He was a vociferous critic of multiculturalism, specifically “Afro-centrism” that he at one time compared to the Klan:
In 1991, Mr. Schlesinger provoked a backlash with â€œThe Disuniting of America,â€ an attack on the emergent â€œmulticultural societyâ€ in which he said Afrocentrists claimed superiority and demanded that their separate identity be honored by schools and other institutions.
The novelist Ishmael Reed denounced Mr. Schlesinger as a â€œfollower of David Duke,â€ the former Ku Klux Klan leader. The Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. caricatured Mr. Schlesingerâ€™s arguments as a demand for â€œcultural white-face.â€
Mr. Schlesinger was nonplussed. He frequently described himself as an unreconstructed New Dealer whose basic thinking had changed little in a half century.
â€œWhat the hell,â€ he answered when questioned by The Washington Post about his attack on multiculturalism. â€œYou have to call them as you see them. This too shall pass.â€
A man of the left but not a slave to its diktats and demands for ideological purity. In short, an independent thinker who never let politics get in the way of what he stood for. In this respect, he was a rare breed, right or left.
For Schlesinger, it was the intellectual journey that was important, as he points out in this, one of his last articles, written on January 1, 2007 and published in The New York Times:
History is the best antidote to delusions of omnipotence and omniscience. Self-knowledge is the indispensable prelude to self-control, for the nation as well as for the individual, and history should forever remind us of the limits of our passing perspectives. It should strengthen us to resist the pressure to convert momentary impulses into moral absolutes. It should lead us to acknowledge our profound and chastening frailty as human beings â€” to a recognition of the fact, so often and so sadly displayed, that the future outwits all our certitudes and that the possibilities of the future are more various than the human intellect is designed to conceive.
For those of us who love our history and respect those who toil with tireless dedication to inform us and challenge our assumptions about who we are and where we have come from, those words should be a clarion call to apply ourselves and learn as much as we can about our past so that we can grasp the present and understand the forces that shape our modern world.
This is where history and politics come together. And the death of Arthur Schlesinger makes us much poorer for having lost a voice that brought our past to life and showed us how relevant it was to our deliberations today.
In re-reading this piece, I see where I got so caught up in describing my favorite Schlesinger book that I failed to give its title!
Robert Kennedy and His Times