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 House—the wrong end, of course, from the standpoint of proximity to power—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.
First there’s Robert Kennedy and the question, from 1966 on, about whether he can challenge Lyndon Johnson on the war. Schlesinger is back where he longs to be, at the heart of a presidential campaign, until Sirhan Sirhan steps into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He thinks of himself in these years as a committed opponent of the war, which has caused him to reconsider convictions about the need for a strong president that had underpinned his scholarly writing on Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt. “I fear that those uncritical theories of the strong presidency that historians and political scientists, myself among them, were propagating with such enthusiasm in the fifties have come home to roost,” he writes. (By the Eighties, with a Republican in the White House, his revisionism has gone so far as to produce a reflection that he would earlier have deemed cynical but which now he evidently sees as simple common sense. “If a presidency is inclined to do dumb things,” he says, “it is far better that it be weak rather than strong.”) Ultimately, these reflections yielded a pointed historical survey, The Imperial Presidency.3
What’s “terrifying,” he says, is the self-deception of supposed leaders. Government, he writes in a 1971 passage that might have been written yesterday, “very often consists of exceedingly limited, presumptuous, mistaken and even stupid men.” It’s “a record of glibness, illusion and intellectual mediocrity.”
His reconsiderations don’t save him from collisions with supporters of Senator Eugene McCarthy or “New Left” types for whom contempt for anyone who has been close to power becomes the essence of morality. Normally buoyant, he wonders in 1968 if he is turning paranoid. “I am obliged to state,” he says in a note to himself, “that I have never felt so much in my life the settled target of hostility as I do here in New York City.” After a public debate in which he has participated, “a bearded little man” sits down next to him and, speaking softly, tells him he’s “a murderer, and a traitor, and a mother fucker.” A few weeks later: “I have just been out to get the morning Times, and inevitably someone [a McCarthy backer, it seems] harangued and denounced me on Third Avenue.” Later he goes to a screening of a new Antonioni movie and a “young jerk” in the row behind mutters, “There goes bourgeois history.” He shouldn’t be watching the movie, he shouldn’t be walking the streets, the man says. “We’re going to fix that, and very soon.”
The second Kennedy assassination in June 1968 moves him to forswear the central obsession of his adult life. “I do not want to get involved in politics again,” he tells himself. “Every political leader I have cared about is now dead; and I do not want to get attached to another, and then see something terrible happen to him.” But it takes more than a vow on paper to break old habits and loyalties. Within weeks he shows up at the Democratic convention in Chicago (“contrary to intention and expectation”) to lend a hand to his friend George McGovern, who has launched an eleventh-hour candidacy. Before he leaves the convention, he indulges in a preliminary chat with Ted Kennedy about the timing of the next Kennedy race. Then Hubert Humphrey calls to solicit his support.
Voting Democratic is no longer automatic. In 1967 he had written, after a conversation in which Humphrey continued to support the war, that voting Republican “would be the only way” to end it. A year later, the only thing that stops him is the identity of the Republican candidate: “I cannot ever support Nixon, whom I regard as the greatest shit in 20th-century American politics.” (The qualifier may be no more than “scholarly caution,” he adds. “I cannot at the moment think of anyone in the 19th century quite meeting Nixon’s combination of sanctimoniousness and squalor.”)
The war is over by the time he finally breaks ranks with the Democrats. “I could not bring myself to vote for a man who believes that Adam and Eve once existed and that Eve was literally made out of Adam’s rib,” he writes in 1976, referring to Jimmy Carter, whom he regards as a “mean little man.” He doesn’t pull the lever for president that year; later, when George McGovern admits to having voted for Gerald Ford, he wishes that he had done so too. In 1980, after Ted Kennedy has gone down to defeat, he votes for the third-party candidate, John Anderson, reasoning that Ronald Reagan “would be no worse than Carter.”
Twelve years earlier when some New York intellectuals made a similar argument for Nixon over Humphrey, he’d been outraged by what he branded as their “ignorance/arrogance” in political matters. It was “beyond belief,” he wrote. Now, finally—or so an earlier, less forgiving version of himself might have observed—he has become a New York intellectual too. (With an air of clinching a point, he notes that Jackie Onassis also went for Anderson.) To his mind, two presidents in a row—Johnson and Nixon—had “very bizarre psyches,” and he fears that Carter “may also turn out to be another weirdo.” After he meets Gary Hart in 1987, he writes, “I don’t think the republic can afford another weird President.”
One of the pleasures of the book is watching the diarist’s shifting responses as some of the same characters enter, exit, and reenter over a period of years. Early on he sees Adlai Stevenson as “the one creative hope in our politics.” On the night of the Kennedy assassination, Stevenson arrives at the White House “smiling and chipper, as if nothing at all had happened.” Schlesinger deduces that he is already looking forward to expanded influence under Johnson. “It is a most disappointing reaction, and one that it will take me long to forgive,” a journal entry three days after the assassination declares. A couple of weeks later, his old hero actually says, “Things are ten times better for me now than they were before.” Yet when, a year and a half later, Stevenson drops dead in London, Schlesinger rediscovers old sentiment and writes, “He was one of the most enchanting human beings that any of us will ever know.” Characters are glimpsed, not seen in any depth; it’s not clear that they ever really know one another. Yet artlessly, the diarist achieves an effect a political novelist could envy, thanks to his involvement in the happenstance of these self-regarding, driven lives.
The character who comes and goes the most across the years and pages turns out to be none other than his old Harvard colleague Henry Kissinger, who functions here as a one-man leitmotif. At first, Kissinger visits Schlesinger in the White House; later it’s the other way around. When a Democrat is in power, he worries about being frozen out of national security discussions. When he’s at the seat of power, he drops hints that he’s on the verge of resignation. “I like Henry very much, and respect him,” Schlesinger writes, “though I cannot rid myself of the fear that he says one sort of thing to me and another sort of thing to, say, Bill Buckley.” As the Nixon administration comes unglued over Watergate, he writes that Kissinger is “one of the most disgusting figures in this whole business,” but still they go on lunching. After his president falls, Kissinger has a lot to say about the atmosphere in the Nixon White House. He calls it “slightly homosexual” and compares Nixon’s work habits to those of Hitler as described by Albert Speer, saying he went for stretches working only three hours a day.
The lunches continue in New York after Kissinger leaves Washington. At the first of them, he calls Donald Rumsfeld “the rottenest person he had known in government.” In the Reagan Eighties, after a lunch at the Four Seasons, Schlesinger writes that Kissinger was “his usual charming/ funny/devious/satisfied self.” Kissinger is reliably and entertainingly caustic about the Reagan administration. “Have we ever had decisions made by people with less knowledge of foreign affairs?” he asks.
The character who shows the most development in these pages is the diarist himself. He is not given to introspection and conspicuously gets tongue- tied when he might be expected to express strong feelings. When his mother dies at ninety, all he can say before writing a summary of her life that seems formal and eulogistic is that he has been “strangely disturbed” since getting the news. When he remarries at the age of fifty-three, he goes no further than to remark that “since this is not a very personal journal, I will not make personal comment,” except to note that he and his new wife have been “exceptionally happy” already and that he has reason to be “astonished by my good fortune.” Without transition, he then turns to the Pentagon Papers.
A reader following along with him may sense that Schlesinger is mellowing, his sense of humor improving; that he’s becoming a bit more tolerant—some might say indiscriminate—in his openness to those of a different political stripe. He goes to Cuba and meets Castro, who reminds him of Joseph Alsop. He goes to London and meets Lady Thatcher, who reminds him of Castro. Robert Bork, who shares his affection for martinis, turns out to be “likable.” Dick Cheney, encountered in his Halliburton days, is “disarming.” “I do like old Pat,” he says of Pat Buchanan, “reprehensible as his views generally are.” He thinks William Casey has been “malevolent” at the CIA but admits, “I continue to like him personally.” This leads to a question. “Should one dislike people who do evil?” It’s not a question on which he chooses to dwell. “Probably,” he answers.
He despises gossip—especially in print—about what he primly terms the “sexual vagaries” of politicians. But in 1990 he records a conversation with Norman Mailer about whether Kennedy was “the most priapic President.” His geniality is not all-encompassing. In fact, it turns out he has an enemies list; it’s very short, consisting of “people who go out of their way to attack me, dragging my name into irrelevant contexts in order to make what they regard as devastating insults.” Just five names are mentioned: Gore Vidal, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Christopher Hitchens, Joan Didion, and John Gregory Dunne. The formerly “egregious” William Buckley, with whom he once had a relationship of “incessant—and heartfelt—reciprocal insult” has long since been redeemed and now counts as a friend. Joan Didion, once “obnoxious,” is subsequently redeemed. She “seems to have forgiven all my heresies,” Schlesinger notes with a hint of self-mockery, “and now kisses when we meet. Naturally I think much better of her.” Some people are denied this mercy or the benefit of the author’s last-minute sanitizing. These include Norman Podhoretz, who’s made to wear the word “odious” like a Homeric epithet; a reviewer who’d been dismissive about one of his books (“a third-rate political scientist at Rutgers without much reputation even in that third-rate field”); and Madeleine Albright, “a third-rate woman, and not a nice one either.”
Along with all the names, anecdotes pass like canapés at one of the catered parties Schlesinger attends. He tells you what Harry Truman said to Picasso, what Isaiah Berlin said about Hannah Arendt, what John Huston made of Dashiell Hammett, what Brooke Astor had to say about Gennifer Flowers, what William Styron and Hillary Clinton talked about on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard. It’s usually secondhand but reliably diverting. Sometimes it comes to seem to him like one long party. “Too much; too much,” he complains as he enters his eighth decade. But then he broods on why Jackie Onassis, who tells him there’s no one she’d rather sit next to at a dinner, never invites him to her apartment; or why the invitations from the Clinton White House have been few and far between. The idea of being left out is oppressive.
Always he gets a lift when politicians implore him for ideas or his thoughts on a draft of a speech. What he did in his thirties he’s more than happy to attempt in his eighties, although he is finally somewhat befuddled by several encounters with Al Gore who, asking for help on his speech accepting the nomination for vice-president at the Democratic convention in 1992, rambles on about gnosticism, Maimonides, Aquinas, the “spiritual crisis” of our times, and the need to “define our place in the universe.”
He’s eighty-two when the Vice President calls him in 2000 at 12:50 in the morning for help on that year’s acceptance speech and then expounds on his idea for a theme. It’s that history shows the country is always better when it does “the right thing, however unpopular it might be.” He wants to “rekindle the American spirit.” The historian agrees to send along some thoughts but confesses in his journal, “I really don’t understand what he wants or what he was talking about.”
By this time he has completed the first installment of his memoir and given up on a book he had been promising himself to write for what, at the turn of the century, amounts to half his lifetime. That’s volume four of The Age of Roosevelt, which he put aside to join the Kennedy White House. When Ethel Kennedy asks him, after the second assassination, to write a biography of her husband, his first reaction is to promise himself that volume four would come first; the issue for him was whether he would resume his life as an original scholar. But then he allows the Kennedy book and The Imperial Presidency to intervene. Finally, in 1979—eighteen years after he went to Washington—he returns to the archives at Hyde Park to resume his research.
Six more years go by—during which he produces The Cycles of American History4—and we find him wondering why he hasn’t had time to file his Roosevelt notes. It becomes a refrain. Volume four is “dying the death of a thousand cuts,” he grieves. The social whirl, his chronic financial problems (which force him, he says, to “live from lecture to lecture and piece to piece”), his teaching load, and countless other obligations all get in its way. As late as 1993, after hearing that he’d been on the short list for ambassador to London, he consoles himself by saying, “It would have wrecked the FDR book and maybe my memoirs too.”
Obviously, volume four was not to be. The “age of Roosevelt” had receded. For all his protestations, for all his conscientious sense that he needed to complete the scholarly edifice he’d begun, the historian was immersed in present time; he always had been. He was defined, as we all are, by the choices he’d made. His sons are probably correct when they say in their preface: “He lived his life as he wanted to, to the fullest, until the very last moments.” Some may yet be tempted to see the Journals as the confession of a wayward scholarly life. But, honestly, wouldn’t you rather have this book than volume four?
November 8, 2007
Houghton Mifflin, 2000; reviewed in these pages by James Chace, December 21, 2000. ↩
Houghton Mifflin, 1978, p. 723; reviewed in these pages by Marshall Frady, October 12, 1978. ↩
Houghton Mifflin, 1973; reviewed in these pages by Alfred Kazin, December 13, 1973. ↩
Houghton Mifflin, 1986; reviewed in these pages by George F. Kennan, November 6, 1986. ↩