The late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) is certainly one author who requires no introduction to readers of this journal. Perhaps no public intellectual has cast so large or at least so continuous a shadow on our cultural landscape this past half-century. A fluid, prolific, glib, and versatile writer, he produced more than a dozen books and was a frequent contributor to the public prints, most notably the New York Times and, even more characteristically, the New York Review of Books. His moon-faced visage, always framed by the same horn-rimmed glasses and bow tie, glowed from millions of television screens whenever American politics, and very particularly the Kennedy family, were on the agenda. Although he spent a time teaching history at Harvard (and later at the City University of New York) and published books on historical subjects, he was not really a historian at all, but rather a literary provocateur in the English sense--a kind of leftish version of Auberon Waugh (though perhaps less fun to read). Shortly before his death early last year, two of his sons came upon thousands of pages of a private journal that he had maintained for the last half of his life. Here they are.
These journals cover an exceptionally interesting period of recent American history, covering such topics as the growth of the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, the transformation of the Democratic Party in the early 1970s, the appearance of racial and gender preferences, the Reagan revolution, and the end of the Cold War.
The first thing to say about this book is that it in no way resembles the notebooks of a productive writer. Indeed, if it did it would probably hold out little interest. Rather, its appeal lies in the fact that Schlesinger was an intimate member of the political, social, and economic elites who have controlled the Democratic Party for the last 70 years--that, and the fact that he served for nearly three years as a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, with a basement office in the White House. In subsequent years he periodically served as a speechwriter for other members of the Kennedy political dynasty, but also presidential candidates or contenders in various Democratic primaries. He knew well, if not intimately, practically all of the major figures of our political life, and his candid observations cannot but interest anyone who follows these things.
Moreover, after leaving the Kennedy White House he moved to New York City, where, thanks to his connection with our self-styled reigning family, he had immediate entrance into high society. From 1964 on, the scene moves from Cambridge and Washington to their elegant watering holes in Manhattan (the Colony Club, Elaine's, the Century Club) or to their vacation homes--Palm Beach, Martha's Vineyard, Hyannisport, Aspen, and so forth. The names of what Edith Wharton used to call New York's First Families continually pop up on the page (the van den Heuvels, the Astors, the Rockefellers, the Harrimans, the Wrightsmans, the Stillmans), as well as a few British aristocrats thrown in for good measure. In and of itself there is nothing wrong with this; it is simply hard to reconcile these twitterings with the author's periodic (and, I must say, rather self-indulgent) hand-wringing over the purported inequalities of American society.
More than once in plowing through the 800-odd pages I could not help wondering why his sons thought these journals would add luster to their late father's reputation. While snobbery is a human failing from which no one is completely exempt, Schlesinger appears to have been consumed by it. In particular, these entries reveal a hugely exaggerated reverence for inherited wealth and an unwonted contempt for self-made men. This would appear to explain his early enthusiasm for the late Adlai Stevenson--surely one of the most overrated figures in American political history--for whom Schlesinger campaigned in 1952 and 1956 (opportunely switching horses for John F. Kennedy in 1960). It also probably accounts for his outright contempt for Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. (His obsessive hatred of Richard Nixon, another figure risen, as it were, from the muck, is in a class by itself--almost worthy of clinical classification.) He displays an almost equal disdain for the majority of Democratic candidates and presidents that followed the Kennedys, major and minor. Some innocent parties are also brought down in his observations by their humble social origins. Poor Gennifer Flowers is dismissed as "an obvious floozy," Charlie Rose is "an upwardly mobile fellow from North Carolina," Sidney Zion is "an FDR-hating Jew," and so forth.
These journals cover an exceptionally interesting period of recent American history, covering such topics as the growth of the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, the transformation of the Democratic Party in the early 1970s, the appearance of racial and gender preferences, the Reagan revolution, and the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately there are some pregnant omissions. A long biographical introduction would have helped. Anyone unfamiliar with Schlesinger's earlier intellectual trajectory would not guess that he was one of the precursors of modern neoconservatism with his book The Vital Center (1950). Or that in spite of his opposition to the Vietnam war (once Johnson was in charge), he was a founding member of the American Friends of Vietnam (that is, the Vietnam of Diem and Madame Nhu).
The entries do not prepare one for the changing winds of political fashion, or rather, Schlesinger's careful adjustments to them. They occur abruptly and without prior notice. For example, on pages 107-109 he is writing the White Paper to justify U.S. attempts to overthrow Castro in Cuba; on page 420 he and some of his fancy friends in New York are partying with a high ranking diplomat from the Cuban embassy to the United Nations; still later (pp. 597-599) Schlesinger is hanging on every word of the Maximum Leader in Havana. Towards the end of the book (p. 791) he meets the Cuban dictator in New York at a meeting of the Council of Foreign Relations and they seal their reconciliation (as if one were needed) with a Latin abrazo.
Likewise, all kinds of dire predictions are made about President Reagan's domestic and international policies at their inception--predictions that are not, in fact, ratified by subsequent events. Thus we are told that the effect of Reagan's tax cuts will be "to rekindle social tensions." We never hear anything about these tensions when they fail to manifest themselves. On the subject of Star Wars, he opines that "the Reagan people [see] a nuclear arms race as a way of doing the Russians in. Either they would try to keep up, in which case they would wreck their economy, or they would give up, in which case we would have decisive military superiority." When the Reagan policy produces precisely this effect, painlessly and without conflict, however, Schlesinger has nothing whatever to say to his journals. Another embarrassing omission has to do with the bombing of Libya in 1986. All Schlesinger has to say about this is that "Rambo struck last night." Not a word about the bombing of a disco in Germany that killed several American servicemen and inspired the attack, nor anything either about the subsequent withdrawal of Qaddafi from terrorist activities. The 1991 Gulf War--one supported by a huge number of nations, including many Arab countries--is described as "the most unnecessary war in American history," but we are not told why or what the consequences of acquiescence to Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait might have been. President Clinton's embrace of welfare reform is seen as opening the door to social conflict. Schlesinger lived long enough to see that reform work, but apparently preferred to refrain from further comment to his journals.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the book is the poisonous remarks concerning Jimmy Carter. While one can fully understand the distaste that our 39th president might well provoke in any reasonable person, Schlesinger does not dislike him for the normal reasons--his sanctimoniousness, his nastiness, his constant self-congratulation. Rather, he sees him as--are you ready for this?--hopelessly conservative. Carter is taken to task for toadying to the Shah of Iran, but nothing is said about the sudden abandonment of the latter so that the present Islamofascists--now seeking nuclear weapons and arming terrorists throughout the Middle East--could replace him. Not a word about the "human rights" policy that specialized in giving a free pass to our enemies, or the famous speech abjuring us to overcome our "inordinate" fear of Communism. Nor the protection of the killer rabbit, nor an energy policy ("the moral equivalent of war") that played into the hands of OPEC. No, the real problem with Carter was his low-church Protestantism, his lack of a distinguished social pedigree, and--most important of all--the fact that he was not a Kennedy.
Although not dazzled by Bill Clinton (he much preferred Hillary, and no wonder), when the president was facing possible impeachment towards the end of his second term Schlesinger was conscripted to organize an advertisement in the New York Times to be signed by a coven of history professors recruited from universities around the country. It explained the inexplicable--namely, why Richard Nixon's obstruction of justice was somehow quite different from and more actionable than Bill Clinton's lying under oath, or some such gobbledygook.
Apparently this advertisement caused some controversy. Christopher Hitchens described Schlesinger in the Nation as "not known to me . . . as a historian of any kind, but . . . as a composer of profiles in Democratic opportunism." The gossip writer Taki was even more to the point, characterizing Schlesinger as "that arch pseudo and fraud." Michael Sternberg wrote in the Financial Times that "Arthur Schlesinger has defended Kennedy's reputation at no little cost to his own," and cited a description of him as "one of the United States more purchasable intellectuals." One of the signators rose to Schlesinger's defense, calling him "the great liberal Democratic intellectual of our time." These published journals show that all four of them had it just about right.
Mark Falcoff is the resident scholar emeritus at AEI.