This may sound rather odd, but my principal complaint about Arthur Schlesinger's Journals, 1952-2000 is that they are much too short at 858 pages. His editors--two of his sons--explain that they culled them from about 6000 pages, and I suspect I would have been delighted to read every one of them. Bowing presumably to the brass at Penguin, they have also slanted the editing heavily to appeal to younger readers. There are only 60 pages on the 1950s, 260 on the 1960s, and 160 on the 1970s, while the 1980s and 1990s get 265 and 180. Forty years ago such a book (like the British Harold Nicolson's diaries, which have some important similarities to these ) would have come out in several volumes. Given that the author was a historian who frequently discusses the need to preserve sources (he was appalled to learn that a member of the Truman family had managed to destroy Harry's weekly epistles to his mother and sister), I am confident that his heirs have made arrangements to deposit the full text in an appropriate archive--perhaps the JFK library--where they will be opened at a suitable moment. (This morning's New York Times reports that they have been sold to the New York Public Library and should be available in a couple of years. Anyone want to put me up?)
Schlesinger was born in 1917, making him an exact contemporary of John F. Kennedy, although he was Harvard '38 and JFK was Harvard '40. He made an early splash as an American historian with The Age of Jackson and in the 1950s became one of two Harvard historians to begin grand-scale biographies of Franklin Roosevelt (Frank Friedel was the other.) Neither of them ever got close to a conclusion, but Schlesinger's three volumes (The Crisis of the Old Order, The Coming of the New Deal, and The Politics of Upheaval), appearing in the late fifties, became Book-of-the-Month Club selections and best sellers and inspired the new generation of Democrats of which he was a part. His real love, however, as he freely admits, was politics. He regarded teaching as a painful necessity (I suspect, actually, that he was somewhat better at it than he lets on), wrote prolifically (but more effectively, in my opinion, about the present than about the more distant past), and hated academic environments per se. Like Henry Adams--with whom I feel even more in common--he inevitably gravitated to
Interesting from many points of view, the journals struck me above all as a generational portrait, chronicling the progress of the moderate left wing of the GI generation. The 1950s section poses a mystery that I have often pondered--the extraordinary adulation that a whole generation of liberals bestowed upon Adlai Stevenson, who invariably seems even in their own accounts to have done so little to deserve it. Yes, Stevenson was very charming (Schlesinger's friend John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that few men possessed in equal measure the talent of making one feel that there was no one to whom he would rather be speaking at this moment than one's self), clever with words, urbane, and eminently successful on foreign policy issues. Yet he was not much of a liberal domestically, especially on civil rights (as Schlesinger amply documents), and his tendency to deny his own ambition was the despair of his supporters as well as the ruin of some of his own hopes. In 1952, 1956, and 1960 he declared again and again that he did not want his Presidential nomination, forcing his party practically to get on its knees and beg (as it did, twice, with disastrous results.) Had he simply bowed out and endorsed JFK in 1960 he might well have become Secretary of State--where he and Kennedy might actually have worked very well together--but instead, his coyness made the Kennedys so angry as to rule that out. As late as the spring of 1960, even Schlesinger, who already knew Kennedy and who retrospectively has been viewed as the Kennedys' court historian, endorsed JFK only with public regret that Stevenson was not running. Schlesinger had a moment of which he was particularly proud in the fall of 1960, when both Kennedy and Stevenson asked him to write their speeches for the same event, the Liberal Party dinner in
Schlesinger had written speeches for Stevenson, and speechwriting remained his principal political role--literally, it turns out, until at least 2000. Kennedy brought him into the White House as a special assistant both to write speeches and offer political advice and to help on some policy matters, especially with respect to
Although Schlesinger periodically demonstrates some capacity for hatred--Richard Nixon was, understandably, his favorite target, leading to amusing complications in the 1980s when Nixon bought the house behind his own on the upper East Side--he generally remains rather calm and unemotional. At one point, he muses perceptively about the difference between the New Deal and the New Frontier. "The New Dealers were always great talkers and philosophizers. . .Moreover, the New Deal had its distinctive rhetoric. [New Dealers] could talk about 'the people,' about their ultimate wisdom, and about the importance of doing things for them in a way quite alien to the New Frontier. The heart was worn much more on the sleeve then. The New Frontier has a deep mistrust of what it regards as the pat liberal sentimentalities and cliches of the thirties. . . .The difference in rhetoric does probably signify a deeper difference in commitment--a change, in a way, from evangelists who want to do something because it is just and right, to technocrats who want to do something because it is rational and necessary. The New Frontier lacks the evangelical impulse--in part no doubt because there is no audience for it." Thanks to Strauss and Howe, I immediately recognized that as perfect characterization of the difference between a Prophet generation (like
Yet Schlesinger was overcome by his emotions after the death of JFK--and in a most unfortunate way. Like Robert Kennedy, to whom he immediately became closer, he simply could not in his heart accept the idea that Lyndon Johnson was now President and that there was nothing they could do about it. (The contrast in this respect between him and figures like Galbraith, Bundy, and McNamara is noteworthy.) Although Schlesinger did not deny LBJ's legislative achievements he clearly never saw the man as Presidential timber, and more importantly, he encouraged RFK's belief that Johnson might be pressured into making RFK the Vice-Presidential nominee-which, of course, he could not be. Sadly, Schlesinger's resentment of Johnson even corrupted his work as a historian. In A Thousand Days, he propagated the myth that Kennedy had not really meant to select Johnson as Vice President--that he had half-offered him the job as a courtesy, only to be amazed when Johnson jumped at it. There is nothing in his contemporary journal entry (p. 76) to support that--only confirmation that, after JFK had decided on the selection (for, as it turned out, excellent political reasons), RFK tried to talk Johnson into backing out--the beginning a long and bitter hatred into which Schlesinger allowed himself to be drawn after November 22, 1963.
Schlesinger's most endearing quality, for me, is his consistently sensible attitude about foreign policy. He is skeptical about foreign intervention throughout, and was an early opponent of escalation in
Schlesinger returned to the political wars, of course, in 1968 on Robert Kennedy's behalf, and was even more devastated by his assassination than by his brother's. The denouement of that year's campaign was surely a shock. In an extraordinarily ironic entry written in November 1962, Schlesinger recounted both Nixon's
During the next three decades Schlesinger was consulted again and again by various candidates, including George McGovern (for whom we share a very high regard), Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and even, to my astonishment, Al Gore in 2000. (Apparently Democratic Boomer politicians, at least, had some conception of how much they could have used their elders' counsel.) In 1988, in the last week of his disastrous campaign, Dukakis finally declared himself a liberal in the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy--something Schlesinger had called upon him to do privately on September 1 of that year and publicly on October 21.) It was much too late.
Meanwhile Schlesinger's continuing contacts with Kissinger remained valuable historically if not politically. Nixon, Kissinger told him in 1975, "was both more evil and better than people supposed. He was at his best when he was under pressure and cornered. That brought all his faculties into play. . ..It was a great myth that he was a hard worker. He was one of the laziest men I have ever seen. I don't think he ever read the
Schlesinger was appalled by the renewal of the Cold War under Reagan and enjoyed confronting his Harvard classmate Cap Weinberger about it. (Weinberger insisted that the Soviets were bent upon world conquest.) He amply documents something that has been almost completely forgotten: how conservatives young and old (including Richard Nixon) insisted as late as 1989 that Gorbachev only sought to make the
One Democrat did not consult Schlesinger: Jimmy Carter. And the New Yorker returned the snub with interest, refusing to vote for him either in 1976 or in 1980--the first time, he claimed, because Carter had declared his belief in the literal truth of Genesis. (He did not vote for President in 1976 and voted for John Anderson in 1980.) In retrospect that looks to me like a relatively rare lapse in judgment. But it also encapsulates the tragedy of Schlesinger and the whole bicoastal liberal movement of which he was such a part.
To those born from 1905 or so until 1925 or so, the New Deal and the Second World War had proven the validity of liberal Democratic values, grounded in a mixture of identification with the common man and rational policy analysis. Their mistake--parallel to the mistake of the Midwestern Republicans who had fought and won the civil war eighty years earlier--was to believe that those triumphs had established the truth of their beliefs for all time. In fact the
Like the Republicans who never stopped frothing at the mouth over the New Deal, Democrats of my age or older who will die longing for the good old days are arguing with history. Certainly events of the 1960s--notably the Kennedy assassination and
P.S. Cliopatria, a site run by historians, is accepting nominations for the best individual historical blog of 2007. Anyone wishing to make one can go to: