Books

The Vital Centrist

By

Journals: 1952-2000
By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Edited by Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger
(Penguin Press, 894 pp., $40)

I.

FEW HISTORIANS write personal journals that deserve publication, which is not surprising. How much interest can there be in the academic controversies and petty jealousies that dominate the lives of working historians, much less in the archives, the private libraries, and the lecture halls where they spend so much of their time? Novelists, poets, and literary criticsAlfred Kazin is a recent examplehave the gifts, and the sensibilities, required to dramatize their inner lives and the world around them in journals and diaries. But historians, who crave the journals of others, usually lack the inner and outer experience to write appealing journals of their own.

Of course there are exceptions. Until now, the best-known journals written by an American historian were Francis Parkman’s, written between 1841 and 1892, and published in 1947. The finest of themthe record of a hunting trip that Parkman took to the West in 1846, when he was only twenty-two and had just graduated from Harvardbecame the basis for his most famous work,The Oregon Trail. As might be expected from his more formal writing, Parkman’s Oregon Trail journal mainly described Indians, fellow sojourners, and natural wonders. But not all of the time: early in his trip westward, while he was in St. Louis, Parkman happened upon a crowd that had clogged the sidewalk and surrounded none other than Henry Clay, the sometime senator and perennial presidential candidate, who was in town on business. A permanent campaigner, Clay engaged his admirers in good-humored conversation, and at one point asked an old man for a pinch of snuff. “The mob was gratified,” Parkman recounted, “and the old man, striking his cane on the bricks, declared emphatically that Clay was the greatest man in the nation, and that it was a burning shame he was not in the presidential chair.” The young historian was not amused: “So much for the arts by which politicianseven the best of themthrive,” he acerbically noted.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. had Harvard and history-writing in common with Francis Parkman, but little else. When he wasn’t visiting Europe or headed off into the wilds, Parkman composed his monumental volumes on early North America locked away mentally and physically, afflicted by a variety of psychological and neurological maladies. Schlesinger, a sunny-tempered bon vivant, found the time to complete a body of scholarly work comparable to Parkman’sas well as to write some six thousand manuscript pages of journal entries covering nearly half a century, of which less than one-fifth appears in this edited volume while also teaching, lecturing, reviewing books and movies, drafting political speeches, advising candidates and presidents, and pursuing a social life so frenetic that it might seem wearisome if Schlesinger didn’t make it sound so delightful.

Although both Parkman and Schlesinger were blessed with acute powers of analysis and description, Schlesinger led a life unlike that of any other American historian of his time or any other (apart, perhaps, from his distant putative forebear, the patrician historian and Jacksonian politico George Bancroft). Brilliant, curious, and dauntingly energetic, Schlesinger tried to reach the pinnacle of the nation’s political and intellectual endeavors, and he succeeded. But he also paid a price for his influence and celebrity, as these engrossing and vivacious journals demonstrate from time to time. Seriousness turns out to be a very demanding calling, and vivacity can get in the way.

Schlesinger loved American politics and American politicians, in the present as well as the past, about as much as Parkman loathed them. Although he admired Andrew Jackson much more than he did Henry Clay, Schlesinger would have relished the scene in St. Louis that Parkman described with haughty disdainI can imagine him laughing heartily and maybe angling for a bit of the old man’s snuff himself. His journals happily offer up many latter-day political scenes like it. As skillfullybut, of necessity, very selectivelyedited by Schlesinger’s sons Stephen and Andrew, the journals provide, to the exclusion of much else in Schlesinger’s life, a fascinating account of his experiences as a participant-observer in American politics before, during, and after the thousand-day presidency of John F. Kennedy. Given the high-minded and sometimes cynical scorn for party politics that prevails among today’s intellectuals, Schlesinger’s enthusiasm is as timely as it is refreshing.

THE JOURNALS BEGIN on March 29, 1952, with a sketch of the Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Washingtona hoary ritual in which officeholders, hacks, and hangers-on gather in armories and banquet halls around the country to celebrate their party’s heritage. Schlesinger, then a thirty-four-year-old Harvard professor and party activist, was right at home at the biggest Jefferson-Jackson dinner of all, and he coolly assessed the remarks delivered from the podium. He recorded that President Truman was giving “a good, fighting campaign speech, I thought; nothing new,” when, out of the blue, Truman announced that he would not seek re-nomination. The festivities instantly became electric. Here was a bit of history at which the historian was serendipitously present.

Schlesinger played a more substantial and active role in other political episodes over the next forty years, but again and again he expressed his elation at just being there. On August 17, 1956, during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he relates what happened after his man Adlai Stevenson (who was also the party’s nominee) rejected the draft of an acceptance speech on which Schlesinger had worked. Another speechwriter might have been downcast and started looking for the nearest barroom, but not Schlesinger: “There seemed nothing for me to do, so I headed out to the amphitheater for the nominations, picking up Marietta [Tree] along the way. We arrived in the midst of the Stevenson demonstration. Other nominations and demonstrations then took place. As usual, great fun.”

Four years later, while attending a Democratic governors’ conference in Detroit, Schlesinger spent the evening in a hotel suite with his new favorite, Senator Kennedy, along with Kennedy’s speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, as well as two reporters from Time and one from The Wall Street Journal: “I must say that I adore sitting around hotel rooms with politicians and newspapermen exchanging gossip over drinks.” And Schlesinger enjoyed much more than hobnobbing with insiders. After Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon, he writes ruefully that the Kennedy campaign had not required his speechwriter’s talents out on the stump, composing to tight deadlines: “I love the drama of campaigningthe airplanes and motorcades, the hotel rooms and telephone calls and speech crises, the policy conferences and the tense decisions and the constant air of excitement and anxiety and passion and fatigue. I missed it all terribly. But Jack obviously did not much need the kind of thing I am good at.”

Yet Kennedy did require Schlesinger’s services in the White House. In 1962, Schlesinger had to decide whether he would remain at his post as special assistant to the president or return to his professorship in Cambridge: “I have decided this week to resign from Harvard. A return-or-resign letter came from [Harvard President Nathan M.] Pusey.... I do not feel that I have come near exhausting the value of the experience for myself, or the fun, I feel that I should do it a little longer.” Kennedy told Schlesinger that he would “be more useful down here than teaching those sons of privilege up there,” but Schlesinger was thinking more about the fun of the Kennedy administration, along with the almost unique education he was receiving as a political historian working at the center of power. Schlesinger’s fellow liberal Hubert Humphrey later famously promoted the “politics of joy,” but no one took more joy in American politics and government than Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

II.

SCHLESINGER distinguished carefully between keeping a diary and keeping a journal. There is virtually nothing here about his private life or innermost thoughts. (Nor is there much in the unedited manuscript, which I have seen.) Apart from the odd reference to a pleasurable day in the library, the book is silent about his work as a historian. Thus there are no entries at all here for the year 1958, when Schlesinger was laboring over the second and third volumes of The Age of Roosevelt. In fact, there are hardly any serious reflections about any aspect of Schlesinger’s intellectual life. (Isaiah Berlin, with whom Schlesinger kept up an intense friendship and lengthy correspondence for decades, turns up fewer than ten times, almost always in passing. Bill Moyers turns up more often.) If letters were meant for blending gossip, wit, and strenuous thought, and if a diary was meant for recording intimate revelations, then a journal, in Schlesinger’s view, was supposed to be mainly a compilation of public events, or events of public consequence, along with the author’s thoughts about them.

These journals are such a chronicle. They cover the second two phases of a life that was divided into three. Before 1952, Schlesinger made a name for himself as a precociously brilliant historian, especially with The Age of Jackson, which appeared in 1945 and won the Pulitzer Prize. He spent World War II working with the Office of Strategic Services in London, then returned home to help in the creation of Americans for Democratic Action and to write The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, a provocative liberal anti-communist tract that is now a genuine classic of American political literature. Having already won a professorship at Harvard, he also began the research for what would become The Age of Roosevelt. Schlesinger lived long enough to write a memoir (alas, not one of his finest books) of these years, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, which appeared in 2000, and these journals in effect are a substitute for the volumes that he never completed, fortuitously picking up almost exactly where the memoir broke off.

The most interesting sections of the journals cover the second phase of Schlesinger’s career, which lasted from the campaign of 1952 through the Kennedy administration and its aftermath, until Robert F. Kennedy’s murder in 1968. During these sixteen years, which began when he was still only in his mid- thirties, Schlesinger deepened his attachment to the Democratic Party’s leadership and finished the bulk of his most important historical scholarship. He sought and attained power, and then lost it with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Dazed and depressed, Schlesinger wrote A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, his combination of history and memoir of the Kennedy administration, and accepted a distinguished professorship at the City University of New York, and became part of the informal Kennedy government-in- exile, which seemed to be on the way to winning the White House again in 1968 until Robert Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles.

Having read Schlesinger’s incoming personal correspondence during most of these years, as well as many of the pertinent White House files, I can attest that the journals, even in their unedited form, do not contain everything of historical interest about Schlesinger’s political endeavors. (Schlesinger decided to say little, in his journal and in his book on the Kennedy administration, about his efforts inside the administration to advance the cause of what he called the non-communist left around the world.) Still, the journals offer abundant pleasures, as well as considerable information about the Kennedy White House. Not the least of these come when one stumbles over entries that look fateful in retrospectreminders of what Schlesinger remarked upon repeatedly as the importance of the unintended and the unpredictable in history.

The journals disclose, for example, that late in 1960 Schlesinger was briefly a top candidate for the position of national security adviser to President Kennedy, before other names edged his out. They also disclose that Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas might well have become secretary of state, except for the opposition stirred by the young liberal Kennedy adviser Harris Wofford, owing to Fulbright’s conventionally conservative southern Democratic record on civil rights. One is left to ponder how differently history might have turned out (not least with respect to Vietnam) had Schlesinger been Kennedy’s security adviser instead of McGeorge Bundy, and had Fulbright been running the State Department instead of Dean Rusk.

Deeper historical concerns also surround Schlesinger’s descriptions of the politics of the 1950s and 1960s. The journals are especially valuable in describing Schlesinger’s evolution from a stalwart New Dealer to a champion of Kennedy’s New Frontier. The change was not as straightforward as might now be imagined; certainly it was not foreordained that the young ADA liberal would come to embrace the son of the arch right-wing Democrat Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. After they first met in 1946, at Joseph Alsop’s home in Georgetown, Schlesinger described the newly elected representative John Kennedy as “very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side.” Not every liberal intellectual embraced Kennedy as wholeheartedly as Schlesinger eventually did. But as a consequence of Schlesinger’s proximity to important events, and of his historian’s eye and trenchant prose, his journals form a fine chronicle of American liberalism re-inventing itself in the 1950s and 1960sa necessary renewal that a later generation of Democrats would have much more trouble completing after 1968.

AT THE START of the journals, Schlesinger makes it clear that he liked Truman”the brisk, relaxed, jaunty little man”and respected his political judgment. But he adored Governor Stevenson of Illinois, whom the Democrats eventually nominated in 1952 and again in 1956. Schlesinger considered Stevenson by far best suited to build on the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. Stevenson had polish, Schlesinger thought, and dignity, and intelligence. “He is an original personality in our public life,” Schlesinger wrote as the campaign commenced; “he is the start of something new.”

Schlesinger threw himself into his hero’s cause, in 1952 and 1956, as a speechwriter, sometime adviser, liaison with other Democrats, and all-around kibbitzer. In working for Stevenson, Schlesinger established what would become a pattern. Although he never enjoyed a great deal of clout in important decisions, Schlesinger was always in or near the rooms where those decisions were made. And he watched everything with the astuteness of someone who had long before devoted his life to studying the history of American politics, and especially presidential politicsand then wrote it all down.

His historian’s detachment, as well as his core political commitments, spared him from becoming a mere acolyte of Stevenson’s. Although the journals describe Stevenson warmly, they also register notes of doubt that persisted and eventually grew larger. As early as 1952, Schlesinger was offended by what he perceived as Stevenson’s conceit of being at once too pure and too uncertain of his talents to be president. This mixture of exquisite loftiness and feigned modesty reminded Schlesinger of a quip he had heard earlier from James Rowe, an official in Truman’s State Department, “that he was planning a book about the Stevenson administration to be called ‘Hamlet in the White House.’”

Despite Stevenson’s public image as a consummate liberal, Schlesinger also found him far too conservative on certain issues, especially civil rights. “There seemed to me an unreasonable concern with soothing ruffled southern feelings,” he wrote from inside Stevenson’s first campaign, “a tendency to bear with and explain away southern contrariness, while becoming quickly impatient with labor and the liberals.” Another entry from four years later reports that Stevenson had remarked in a private conversation that the emerging civil rights movement was self-defeating, and had claimed that “the only Negro hope” was to let “moderate-minded southerners” solve the problem in a gradualist way. “I pointed out to all this,” Schlesinger wrote, “that the Negroes had never gotten anywhere except through putting on pressure, and they knew it.” Even when Stevenson hit his full stride on the campaign trail, he could not shake his inflated sense of uprightness, or overcome what Schlesinger called a “split between his desire to win and his desire to live up to the noble image of himself.” When Stevenson’s Olympian impulses got the better of him, Schlesinger observed, he seemed to “feel ashamed of his attacks on the Republicans as the party of the big interests”the kinds of attacks that Roosevelt had made with gusto, and that had always stirred Schlesinger’s soul.

When the campaign of 1960 approached, Schlesinger’s abiding loyalty to Stevenson led him to write that “if he were a declared candidate, I would of course, despite all misgivings, be for him.” But Schlesinger eventually decided to support Kennedya personal as well as political break that reflected a larger movement among many liberal Democrats. Stevenson’s refusal to work openly for the nomination despite his obvious lust for it irritated Schlesinger, as it irritated others, as a recurrence of the man’s Mugwumpish priggishness. But political substance and engagement also recommended the newcomer:

I have come, I think, to the private conclusion that I would rather have Kennedy as President. Stevenson is a much richer, more thoughtful, more creative person; but he has been away from power too long; he gives me an odd sense of unreality ... but K. in contrast gives a sense of cool, measured, intelligent concern with action and power. I feel that his administration would be less encumbered than S.’s with commitments to past ideas or sentimentalities; that he would be more radical; and that, though he is less creative personally, he might be more so politically.

Given his prior attachments, Schlesinger had to be circumspect. (”I cannot mention this feeling to anyone,” he wrote.) Yet plainly he had begun to discover in Kennedy the “something new” he had thought he saw in Stevenson eight years earlierthe qualities of a leader who could effectively translate the ideals of the Depression-choked 1930s to the changed realities of the Cold War and the prosperous 1960s. And seven months later Schlesinger found himself reporting to work in the East Wing of the White House. He was not quite sure what his new job as special assistant to the president entailed, but he was delighted at the chance to help lead the nation through what he called “the shift from the Old Frontier to the New Frontier.”

III.

DURING SCHLESINGER’S White House years, the journals begin to include accounts of the kind of intense socializing that some reviewers have described as the book’s major theme. Schlesinger, who came of age in the happily post- Prohibition 1930s and the wartime 1940s, always cherished his martinis and his bourbon. And unlike many men in his cohort, he enjoyed the company of formidable women who combined good looks and high intelligence. (”What a beautifuland delightful girl Lauren Bacall is!even more attractive in the flesh than on the screen,” he wrote in 1952.) Not surprisingly, after Schlesinger moved from Cambridge to Washington, his remarks on the social scene expanded appreciably.

The journals cover the full range of administration insiders’ after-hours festivities, from elegant state dinners at the White House to a coming-out ball for Paul Mellon’s daughter and an opening-night gala for Joshua Logan’s Broadway musical flop Mr. President. (”This is the best party I have ever been to in my life,” Kennedy assistant Kenneth O’Donnell said to another guest at Logan’s soiree.) There are stories about some of the famous blowouts at Hickory Hill, Robert Kennedy’s estate in McLean, Virginia, complete with swimming-pool dunkings”a perfect expression of the rowdier aspects of the New Frontier,” Schlesinger wrote. For Schlesinger, all this was also part of the fun of politics. It can be easily misinterpreted as only frivolous, or even as something a little sinister.

Over the years, an anti-Camelot myth has arisen that portrays the Kennedy administration as a sybaritic private men’s club whose members occasionally took breaks to attend to matters like the Cuban missile crisis. Schlesinger, according to the myth, was the Kennedy family’s chief courtier and propagandist, and nothing he says about the family can be trustedincluding his denials that, as he once put it, “an unending procession of bimbos” marched through the Kennedy White House. The journals from the early 1960s contain no hints about Kennedy’s unruly sexual waywardnesswhich Schlesinger eventually conceded, adding that it did “not constitute John Kennedy’s finest hour.” Later his love for and loyalty to the clan, and his desire to believe the very best until it became impossible to do so, could get the better of him. But the journals do convey the ease with which high spirits and cultivated, even serious thought once commingled in Washingtonan aspect of the Kennedy years that the prurient revisionists have buried.

Hickory Hill certainly saw its share of inebriated high-jinks, but it was also the site of the so-called Hickory Hill seminars, in which Schlesinger arranged for various intellectual luminaries to rehearse their ideas before administration officials and specially invited guests in an informal atmosphere- -a freewheeling and unusual mixture of personalities as well as professions. (At one of these seminars, the philosopher A.J. Ayer gave a talk that attacked abstract propositions, only to have Ethel Kennedy, a devout Catholic, rise and challenge his rejection of “conceptions like truth and virtue and meaning.”) The journals also describe a bygone world of Georgetown salons and dinner parties in which Schlesinger took constant pleasure. There are accounts of gatherings at the Alsops’, the Bradlees’, and the Harrimans’, among others, that emanated political intelligence, elegance, and a certain moral sophistication. Parties do not have to be stupid.

It is sometimes forgotten that only thirty years earlier Georgetown had been a rundown, semi-bohemian section of town, where young cash-strapped reformers drawn to work for the New Deal took up residence in cheap flats and what are now called fixer-uppers. By the early 1960s, when the new generation ascended to power, the area had become the chief bastion of Washington social life, blending remnants of its down-to-earth (and even earthy) past with the grandeur of politics at the political capital of the Free World. To be sure, the intellectual level, except every now and then, was not exactly Augustan; Georgetown evenings during the Kennedy years had a snobbery and self-importance all their own. Still, it was a far cry from the gilded, media-mad place that Georgetown (including some of its surviving overseers from the Kennedy years) became in the 1980s.

BUT POLITICS, and not dinner parties, dominate the White House sections of Schlesinger’s journal. All the familiar episodes of Kennedy’s presidency appearthe Bay of Pigs disaster, the confrontations over Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights upsurge in Birmingham, Alabama, and elsewherebut with a riveting immediacy, an unfolding quality unobtainable from even the best historical accounts. Of greatest interest are those passages where Schlesinger’s liberalism converges with his sense of history.

It will surprise readers who have come to regard Schlesinger as an ambitious, top-down, “great man” elitist, or as an outrageous apologist for the Kennedys, that he operated from a more complicated and critical vantage point, and was sometimes divided against himself. Although very much an insider, he understood that democratic leadership involves not simply talking and acting on behalf of the nation, but listening and acting as well. He was not always certain that Kennedy had sufficient vision and idealism to go along with his realistic political sideand he wondered whether Kennedy listened hard enough.

Schlesinger’s evolving impressions of Kennedy’s leadership are among the journals’ most striking features. Before and during the campaign of 1960, Kennedy had appealed for Schlesinger’s support with what turned out to be lies (notably about his Addison’s disease) that Schlesinger may or may not have believed, and with liberal pronouncements that the skeptical historian thought were sincere. Kennedy admitted, for example, that he had been wrong not to take a more forthright position against Joseph McCarthy. Reflecting on the race for the nomination, he asserted that overt southern support was “absolutely fatal,” and that he wanted to be nominated by liberals and not “go screwing around with all those southern bastards.”

Schlesinger, the idealistic ADA liberal, kindled to such talk. Yet he also came to admire Kennedy as a pragmatic liberal, who had rejected both simplistic Democratic populism and Stevenson’s brand of anti-politics. Kennedy impressed Schlesinger with his pragmatic side, which taught the historian new lessons about the exigencies of democratic leadership. Schlesinger came to appreciate Kennedy’s early efforts to run an administration “of conservative men and liberal measures,” with the former required to achieve the latter so long as the White House had to deal with a conservative Congress. But when the chips were down about the most urgent domestic issue of the day, that is, civil rights, Kennedy the pragmatist also acquitted himself well as a liberal although not, according to Schlesinger, without hesitation or difficulty.

The current scholarly wisdom is that Kennedy was pinched and even callous about civil rights, whereas Lyndon Johnson, the liberal from the Texas hill country, was the true presidential hero of racial equality. Schlesinger’s journals offer a different and more generous view of Kennedy, though hardly a hagiographical one. Schlesinger immediately grasped the momentous importance of the civil rights movement, and of the role played by the rank-and-file, as well as the leaders, in its successes. The president’s lethargic response was, by contrast, “disappointing.” Kennedy was acting, Schlesinger wrote in May 1963, “much as Eisenhower used to act when we denounced him so.”

A month later, after Governor George Wallace had attempted in vain to block the integration of the University of Alabama, Schlesinger stepped back and, thinking like a seasoned historian, took a longer view. “My guess is that May- June 1963 will go down in history as the great turning-point in the fight for Negro equality”:

There has been nothing like it in the way of spontaneous mass democracy in this country since the surge of labor organization in the summer of 1937. Characteristically, one began with “sit-downs,” and the other with “sit-ins.” In each case, ordinary people took things into their own hands, asserted their rights, and outstripped not only the government but their own organizations.

Roosevelt had responded to the union insurgency of 1937 with ambivalence, “by pronouncing a curse on both houses,” Schlesinger noted. An aroused Kennedy, though, proved his mettle “by giving (on June 11) what I would regard as the best speech of his administration on civil rights.”

Schlesinger, far from propagandizing, actually understated the latter point. Kennedy’s speech of June 11, 1963in which he bid Americans to face “a moral issue ... that is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution”was the greatest presidential pronouncement on race relations to that time since Lincoln, and it would presage Kennedy’s push for what eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Schlesinger was well aware that Kennedy had found his liberal voice thanks to larger forces. Here, as elsewhere, Schlesinger’s journals note about Kennedy, as Lincoln remarked of his own presidency, that events controlled him more than he controlled them.

Schlesinger occasionally had to fight hard, during his years in the White House, to keep his political balance. From time to time, his younger New Dealer self would flare up: “I wish I could figure out the terms in which the idealism and imagination of the New Deal could be infused into the antisentimental, anti- rhetorical, understated mood of the New Frontier,” he wrote in April 1963. Yet only a few weeks later uplifted by the sudden energy at the White House about civil rightshe offered a deeper appreciation, at once passionate and detached, of how Kennedy’s administration actually worked. “It is indispensable,” he contended, “for the liberals to bring pressure on a [Democratic] President to do things and to complain about his slowness to act: this is indispensable in order to enlarge his range of alternatives. But, as they do this, liberals must understand that theirs is a contributory role, and he may well be more correct than they are about the moment when the balloon goes up.” Roosevelt had understood this, Schlesinger recognized; and so, he now realized, did Kennedy. And Schlesinger had also learned another lesson, as liberalism re-invented itself at last, merging idealism and understatement: although he would always admire Stevenson as a generous friend and an enchanting human being, Schlesinger now saw Stevenson as the man, as he later put it in his journals, who had “made JFK possible.”

Aside from listening, Kennedy’s pragmatic liberalism demanded a willingness to confront mistakes and, if necessary, to change course. The Bay of Pigs fiasco had impressed this on the president only weeks after his inauguration, as did his failures later at the Vienna summitbut flexibility in response to failure remained a pervasive principle of his entire presidency, and not just in foreign policy. In late October 1963, Schlesinger and Kennedy were chatting during a plane flight to Amherst, Massachusetts, and the conversation turned to former president Eisenhower’s just-published reminiscences. “Apparently he never did anything wrong,” Kennedy said. “When we come to writing the memoirs of this administration, we’ll do it differently.” Four weeks later, Kennedy was dead, leaving Schlesinger to write one version of the administration’s memoirs on his own.

IV.

THIS SECOND PHASE of Schlesinger’s life would end in 1968. He left the Johnson administration (in which he had not felt especially welcome) in 1964, and completed A Thousand Days at his customary breakneck pace, and then relocated to Manhattan, where he took up his professorship at the City University of New York. By the end of 1966, he had broken with the Johnson administration over Vietnam and (again in character) written a tract condemning American policy, called The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966. Politics still dominate these years in the journalexpressed as resentments of Johnson, horror at the war, and a gradual move from opposing to supporting the idea of Robert Kennedy challenging Johnson for the nomination. The chief scenes of action are now Kennedy’s East Side apartment and the Century Association on West 43rd Street, but there are strong continuities with Schlesinger’s White House years.

The entries from late 1967 and early 1968 include some interesting passages countering Robert Kennedy’s reputation as a ruthless, calculating pol especially when Schlesinger describes Kennedy’s on-again, off-again thoughts about running for president. In early February 1968, shortly after Schlesinger had stated definitively that Kennedy was out of the race, he suspected that “the decision is not really final (how Stevensonian can we all get!).” He also reported being “baffled by the intensity of feeling some people”primarily leftists and former Stevensoniansstill harbored against Kennedy as a power-mad politician, despite his creditable work in the Senate; and Schlesinger recalls that “it is easy to forget how savage many liberals and intellectuals were in their attitudes toward JFK” in 1960. Once the whirlwind Kennedy campaign was under way, there were too many minute-to-minute distractions for Schlesinger to write a full-length brief for Robert Kennedy’s candidacy, or a portrait of him anywhere near as full as the one he drew of his brother. And then comes the brutal entry dated June 9: “It is beyond belief, but it has happenedit has happened again.”

THE THIRD AND FINAL phase of Schlesinger’s life would last thirty-nine yearsslightly longer than the span of time before he joined the first Stevenson campaign. He continued to write constantlyfirst his massive (and underappreciated) biography of Robert Kennedy, then The Imperial Presidencyand The Cycles of American History, and then occasional workstracts, some of them very significant, on controversial topics ranging from the rise of multiculturalism (The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society remains an important act of cultural criticism) to the Bush doctrine and the invasion of Iraq, all of them deeply informed by his historical understanding. With his major scholarship behind him, Schlesinger became a fixture on the New York social scene, and kept up his close contacts with the Kennedy family (backing Edward Kennedy’s unfocused and forlorn bid for the presidency in 1980), while staying in touch with national politics through his other personal and institutional contacts. His journals during these four decades are full of tart observations, gossipy table talk, remarks sparked by the political equivalents of class reunions, and reflections on the passing of time. (The arrival of November 22, 1988 prompted Schlesinger to recall, with a shock, that “it is now a longer span of time from JFK’s death to 1988 than it was from the end of the First World War to the start of the Second.”)

There are also entries that show how fully captive Schlesinger had himself become to the Kennedy mystique. Shortly after Edward Kennedy’s fateful automobile accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969, Schlesinger lingered after lunch at the Century with James Reston and Tom Wicker, “who were both sympathetic.” With relief, the journals report that “Scotty [Reston] had been at the Vineyard that weekend and had personally driven over the bridge the next day; it was, he said, perilous even in broad daylight.” This is the wishful thinking of a man blinded by friendship, and it is painful to read. So is Schlesinger’s conjecture, despite his own growing misgivings, that the furor over Kennedy’s actions, inaction, and incomplete explanations would soon recede.

What is most striking, though, is how, during this long final phase of his life, Schlesinger had become a celebritypossibly the first celebrity historian ever, certainly the first in this country. Much of this was owed to the magic dust from the Camelot years that always clung to his shoulders. Much of it also seems to have resulted from his perpetual desire to enjoy himself, his need to be with interesting persons and amid interesting things. But now the fun, for Schlesinger, was at many removes from the center of political power or a strenuous, constant scholarly lifeand the New York of the 1970s and after was very different from the Georgetown of the 1960s. Many of the entries from these years read, at least in spirit, like the following one about the glitterati who attended Schlesinger’s sixty-second birthday:

We held a joint birthday celebration with Ken [John Kenneth Galbraith] (seventy-one)a stellar evening, I thought. We gave a dinner for about thirty-six, the cast led by the Galbraiths, the Harrimans, Jackie, Lauren Bacall, Marietta, Evangeline, Charles Addams, Paddy Chayefsky, Kay Graham and Lally [Weymouth] (not speaking to each other), Denis Healy, the Smiths, Bill Paley, Sam Spiegel, the Fritcheys, Stephen and Andy and their girls, Alexander Cockburn, our Venezuelan friends the Revengas, Bill Walton, Leonard Bernstein, etc.

And there is a lot of et cetera. These annals of the A-list quickly get tiresome.

Yet socializing, even of this intensity, was not the summit of Schlesinger’s life in these years. Some of the old juices flowed again in 1998, when Schlesinger got involved in opposing the impeachment drive against Bill Clinton (events, I should add, in which I worked closely with Schlesinger, as the journals relate). On the political firing line once more, attacked from the left and the right at the same time, Schlesinger felt as if he were back in his postwar prime time, when he wrote The Vital Center and stumped for Stevenson and Kennedy. “I have not enjoyed such a fusillade for a third of a century,” he wrote. “It makes me feel young again.”

FINALLY, THOUGH, more than a wisp of tragedyof what might have been as well as what washovers over the book’s final five hundred pages. A working historian cannot help wincing at the entry from October 11, 1986, where Schlesinger notes that, though he seems to be busier than ever and taking on all sorts of assignments, he is also out of money, “and generally wasting the most precious of commoditiestime, which is inevitably running out for me.” A little more than a year later, he wrote:

My great desire is to clear everything else out of the way and concentrate on volume IV of The Age of Roosevelt. In practice, I find that I dissipate time and energyin lectures, necessary because we are perennially broke; I do not even possess a savings account; in teaching, necessary because we are perennially broke and because I can’t figure out any other way of getting a free office, secretary and space for several thousand books; in good causes, though here I have cut down ... in social life, diverting enough on occasion but too much, too much; in answering letters, a perceived duty ever since my father told me many years ago that, if a person took the trouble to write you a friendly letter, courtesy requires you to take the trouble to answer it....

The journals show that the problem was not simply distraction. Fun, which had once gone hand in hand with serious work and intellection for Schlesinger, now also took its toll. He would never write the fourth volume of what would have been his magnum opus.

And there was another dimension of tragedy, this one political. Schlesinger, the indefatigable liberal, told me shortly before he died that he never expected to suffer the fate of spending his declining years under the presidency of George W. Bush. But the journals show that his alienation reached back much further. His last moment of full-throated political satisfaction seems to come in 1974, when Richard M. Nixon, whom Schlesinger loathed personally as well as politically, fell from power. And so it has been for the Democratic Party that Schlesinger called home.

The high points of Schlesinger’s journals describe the transition from Truman to Kennedyyears of renewal for American liberalism. According to the cyclical interpretation of American history that Schlesinger propounded, something resembling another renewal was due in the late 1980s or 1990sand the Clinton-Gore administration turned up right on schedule. But unlike the Kennedy administration, the Clintonians were unable to reform liberalism as Schlesinger’s generation had done. Ideological divisions within the party, dating back to Vietnam, remained too deep; and Clinton, after his rocky start hastened the rise of Newt Gingrich, found himself forced to play defensive politics against the left and the right simultaneously, and “triangulated” accordingly. The Clinton administration did manage to accomplish a great deal, and Clinton left office a popular president; but the vagaries of politics including the political divisions that led to Ralph Nader’s infantile leftist candidacy in 2000left the Democrats as nearly as incoherent a political force as ever.

The poignancy of the latter portions of Schlesinger’s journals lies here, in the historical pathos of his beloved partyand in Schlesinger’s own political marginality after 1968, despite his abundant and sharply articulated connections. The irony of this entire book is that, from the 1970s and into our own day, liberalism has failed to complete the kind of self-transformation that Schlesinger and his cohort completed in the 1950s and 1960s, and which the journals describe so well. And yet there may be lessons as well as ironies here. If the long age of Ronald Reagan is indeed coming to an end, then Democrats hoping to replace it would do well to look to a renewal of the pragmatic liberalism that Schlesinger helped to update and to sustain, until history, in its cruel inscrutability, cut it down.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

This article originally appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.