The first volume of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s memoirs, A Life in the Twentieth Century,1 didn’t exactly race through his early years. When it ended at the century’s midpoint on page 523, its hero was thirty-three. The justification for all those pages was in the good-humored and reflective telling, his passion for witnessing history as well as writing it, and its unusually large cast of characters. The young historian may not have known everyone who counted politically and intellectually in New York, London, and Washington but he was well on his way. Those he didn’t know firsthand, he heard about secondhand, and, across all the years, he’d retained stories and snatches of conversation that told a bigger story than that of his own impressive rise. Somewhat diffidently, in the preface to the memoir, he admitted to drawing on diaries and notes he had kept “intermittently” over the years but chided himself for not keeping them “more faithfully.” Now it turns out that they amounted to more than six thousand typed pages.
Schlesinger, it appears, never thought of himself as a contemporary Pepys or suggested that his journal entries could be assembled as a book; in his mind they were reference material, the core of his archive on the era through which he had lived. Deep into his ninth decade, still trying to write the second volume of his memoir, which he did not live to finish, the historian allowed his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, to inspect them and then show them to publishers. In the resulting auction, Arthur Schlesinger had one of the biggest literary paydays of his long career. He then asked his sons, Stephen and Andrew, to make the selection for a book. According to Stephen Schlesinger, whom I reached by phone, they removed nothing on grounds of privacy or other extra-editorial considerations; their father, he said, removed no more than fifteen or twenty pages that might have wounded friends, none for political reasons.
What’s left, now published as Schlesinger’s Journals, represents roughly one sixth of the total. Don’t look here for revelations of the Kennedy years. Schlesinger is easily persuaded in the privacy of his journal that the President wasn’t apprised of the Central Intelligence Agency’s various plots to kill Fidel Castro and that there was nothing to rumors that he was on heavy medication for Addison’s disease (conclusions that over the years have become more rather than less debatable). Still, his Journals deserve to be welcomed as an unexpected gift. Dense with anecdotes, gossip, and cameo portraits drawn from the overlapping political, literary, and social circles in which he was a fixture for the half-century it spans, the volume stands as something more than a substitute for the second volume of Schlesinger’s memoir (which could hardly have been contained, at the rate he was going, in two volumes).
The Journals are fresher, less filtered, less inclined to take the long view than the memoir. They offer unrevised and shifting opinions on issues and people. Their charm is in their immediacy and in their author’s avid need to live in the moment, which renders his periodic lamentations about the “hopeless busyness” and “horrible overcrowdedness” of his life, about how it deflects him from the archival research he thinks he should be doing, a shade (maybe several shades) less than persuasive. A witness by nature, a historian only by profession and heritage, he never sought refuge from the events of the day, the political events of the day especially.
Seldom is he a detached witness. Sometimes, living in the moment, he’s swept away on an emotional wave. As the Journals open in 1952, we find Professor Schlesinger, AWOL from Cambridge, at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner of the Democratic Party in Washington where President Truman abruptly announces his decision not to stand for reelection. “I found myself shouting ‘No’ with vigor,” he writes, “then I wondered why the hell I was shouting ‘No,’ since this is what I had been hoping would happen for months.” Four years later at the Democratic convention, when the vice-presidential nomination is thrown open to a floor fight, he supports the junior senator from Massachusetts, whom he as yet scarcely knows. (John F. Kennedy, just four months Schlesinger’s senior, was then thirty-nine.) But when Tennessee declares for Estes Kefauver, “I was suddenly seized by an unexpected onrush of emotion and found myself shouting wildly for Kefauver.”
It happens again at the 1960 convention. This time Kennedy is within reach of the top spot. Schlesinger has allowed the Kennedy campaign to claim him as a supporter, neglecting until it’s too late to break the news to Adlai Stevenson, with whom he had become close through two campaigns. Stevenson, hoping for a draft, has neither declared nor renounced his candidacy. When he goes to speak to a delegation shortly before the balloting, Schlesinger is torn between his old and new loyalties. He slips into the room and listens to a quintessential Stevenson talk, sparkling with wit and fine phrases. “I found myself weeping in the corner,” he writes. He likes the young senator for his toughness and for the aroma of victory his candidacy gives off. But not yet a consigliere, he’s also capable of seeing his candidate as “a devious and, if necessary, ruthless man” who would drop unreconstructed New Dealers like himself “without a second thought,” if association with them became inconvenient. And in fact, the senator doesn’t invite him into the campaign, thus leaving him on the outside looking in. “I missed it all terribly,” he acknowledges.
Pared down to a mere 858 pages, his irregular jottings cohere surprisingly well as a book about the passing political spectacle over half a century by a fugitive scholar, an easily entertained onlooker who rates it as “the greatest fun.” (“I adore sitting around hotel rooms with politicians and newspapermen exchanging gossip over drinks,” he effuses in his journal, which functions as a chatty hotel room of the mind.) We are only on page 224 when Schlesinger comes to the end of three years in the East Wing of the White Houseâ€”the wrong end, of course, from the standpoint of proximity to powerâ€”submitting his resignation to President Johnson barely two days after Dallas. On his fourth day in the Oval Office, the new president looked soulfully into his eyes and said:
I need you far more than John Kennedy ever needed you. He had the knowledge, the skills, the understanding himself. I need you to provide those things for me.
A few days later he finds himself seated in the First Lady’s box, serving as a reassuring signal to eastern seaboard liberals, when the Texan makes his first address to a joint session of Congress. After that, having served his purpose, he’s systematically frozen out. Confirmation that he’s on the skids comes when a reporter tells him that Eric Goldman is being recruited from Princeton to take his place as house intellectual.
Although Schlesinger’s time in the Johnson administration was over almost before it began, Johnson emerges as a more vivid figure in these pages than his predecessor. That may be because he does not feel the same bonds of discretion when it comes to Johnson; or, finally, because November 22 fixed for all time Kennedy’s messy legacy in South Vietnam while Johnson’s escalations opened a gaping cultural and political divide that finally left Schlesinger on the other side.
Kennedy had now and then spoken in private about withdrawing after the 1964 election; when he died it was a faint hope, not yet a plan, for the year after next. There are only two references to Kennedy in a Vietnam context in the entire book, both written long after his death. The pages on the White House years are tellingly silent on the subject. This volume just shows how long it took Schlesinger to allow the prospect of catastrophic failure to come into focus in his mind, although he obviously would have been privy to the pessimistic conclusions reached by his friend John Kenneth Galbraith, who was dispatched to Saigon in 1963 to give the President an independent view. (Later, when Schlesinger took to writing against the war, he would make the point that fewer than a hundred American servicemen had been killed in Vietnam by the time of the assassination. Finally, in his mammoth Robert F. Kennedy and His Times, which appeared three years after the war’s end, he was able to use the words “Kennedy” and “failure” in the same sentence. “Kennedy’s failure,” he wrote in a chapter there on Vietnam, “lay in the hopelessly divided legacy he left on November 22, 1963.”2 )
Before Air Force One takes off for Washington bearing the new president and the casket of his predecessor, the old and new administrations are well on their way to becoming hostile camps. There could be no question about which camp Schlesinger was in. (Within two weeks of his brother’s murder, Robert Kennedy is seeking his advice about whether to pursue the vice-presidency; in other words, about how best to maneuver toward a restoration. Over a period of months, until Johnson sweeps the idea off the table, Schlesinger’s advice amounts to: probably not, emphatically yes, no, and maybe.) Even after he has reestablished himself in New York, Schlesinger remains a recipient of ribald Johnson stories brought to him by old colleagues and later defectors from the Johnson White House that he then happily jots down. (Speaking of his choice of a running mate in 1964, Johnson is reported to have said, “Whoever it is, I want his pecker to be in my pocket.” Pushing Robert McNamara at a cabinet meeting for stronger measures against North Vietnam, he demands to be told “how I can hit them in the nuts.”)
Surprisingly, the Journals don’t become less absorbing after the White House years. Schlesinger’s already vast circle of acquaintances continues to widen. In addition to celebrating the company of politicos and hacks, we eventually find him singing the praises of actresses. (“I find great pleasure,” he confides to his diary, “in the company of intelligent actresses, of whom there seem to be quite a number around.” Lauren Bacall, Shirley MacLaine, Shelley Winters, Gina Lollobrigida [“a disappointment”], Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Angie Dickinson, Anjelica Huston, and Margaux Hemingway all have walk-on parts, along with “Greg” Peck and Groucho Marx, who cracks, on introduction, “I’ve read his lies for years.”) Given that he doesn’t think of himself as writing for publication, this dropping of boldface names seems to be for the author’s own pleasure, to impress himself. It’s with amusement that he tells his journal that Andy Warhol “appeared stunned to see me” at a party given by Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. It’s 1984 and he has just turned sixty-seven. (“I don’t know why we are on their list,” he admits.) But soon he’s back to his regular preoccupations in these pages, politics and Kennedys.