Do NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/22/books/review/the-letters-of-arthur-schlesinger-jr.html?ref=books&_r=0&pagewanted=all
A Historian in Camelot
‘The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’
By GEORGE PACKER
Published: December 20, 2013
Most intellectuals are attracted to power, but none with less ambivalence than Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the brilliant historian of the New Deal who became the quasi-official chronicler of the Kennedys. Schlesinger was born into an American aristocracy in its prime — the Eastern liberal intelligentsia. He was the son of an eminent Harvard historian and grew up apparently knowing everyone. He met his first Kennedy (sister Rosemary, before her lobotomy) when he was 14, at a Christmas party in 1931. It was natural, maybe even inevitable, that Schlesinger, while serving as an intelligence officer in Germany at the end of the war, would be invited to dinner “at the palatial mansion shared by George Ball and Ken Galbraith.” In Washington after the war, the young author of “The Age of Jackson” had a place at the table of Georgetown dinner parties thrown by the columnist Joseph Alsop, where he met Democratic Party royalty — Averell Harriman (“quite favorably impressed by him”), Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. (“looks astonishingly like his father and has adopted many of his mannerisms”) and John F. Kennedy (“seemed very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side”).
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (1962)
In their world, the identity of Yale’s next president was deemed of national significance, meriting a long, urgent letter to Harriman in which Schlesinger proposed various candidates and shot down others. In 1951, he sent the White House a copy of a quickie book that he’d written with Richard H. Rovere, on the showdown between Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and received an appreciative reply from the president himself. His letters throughout the 1950s to Adlai Stevenson carry the frank authority of an insider. Schlesinger spoke in the name of “the liberals” with all the confidence and weight of that definite article, a group with political pull at the highest levels — the commanding brain of the country’s ruling coalition. In May 1960, he wrote to Stevenson (just before abandoning him for Kennedy, who would bring Schlesinger into the White House), “If Jack is nominated as the candidate of the liberals as well as of the Eastern organizations, it will lay the best possible foundations for a vigorous and high-minded campaign in the fall.”
A world where politicians and writers mingle on (almost) equal terms brings distinct advantages. Schlesinger’s political intelligence in his correspondence is excellent, the level of discourse and purpose high, the sense of responsibility as keen as the sense of fun. He is fundamentally comfortable with himself and his world, doesn’t waste energy fighting against institutions whose essential rightness he never questions, nor does he suffer from the intellectual’s usual neuroses, the resentment and self-contempt that come with being ignored. He’s always getting on with the business of being a participant-observer to history.
Perhaps as a consequence, there’s very little sense in “The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.,” selected by two of his sons, of Schlesinger as a private man — no love letters, other than a sublimated correspondence with the highborn and beautiful liberal activist Marietta Tree (“They were never lovers,” the editors note, “despite the words of endearment”). Back in Cambridge from a vacation on the Cape, he tells Tree: “It was really an extremely good month — relaxing, amusing and generally beneficial. I did very little work, but got caught up on sleep, sun, swimming and my children. And there were a large number of pleasant people about. The latest to enter our lives was Montgomery Clift, the actor, who turns out to be a nice, confused, aspiring and quite likable person.” When Schlesinger writes about himself and his friends, the results are often stiff and a bit smug, without psychological insight, which may be the price of the sense of belonging.
The best letters — and there are many — come from the typewriter of the public Schlesinger, the fighting liberal, especially when he’s jousting with a provocative antagonist like William F. Buckley (“You remind me of my other favorite correspondent, Noam Chomsky”) or, even better, arguing a matter of principle with a friend at the breaking point. The Vietnam War, which shattered the New Deal coalition, produced unsparing letters between Schlesinger, who became a vehement opponent of the war, and old friends like Alsop and Henry Kissinger, as well as a remarkable exchange with Schlesinger’s longtime liberal ally, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, during the 1968 campaign. “Don’t overrate yourself, Arthur,” Humphrey wrote in July, shortly before the disastrous Democratic convention in Chicago. “No one’s trying to blackmail you or anyone else into coming over to support my candidacy. On the basis of your earlier and more mature liberal convictions, you ought to be supporting me, but undoubtedly something has happened in your life that has made you angry and bitter.”
“Something” was the assassination, one month before, of Schlesinger’s friend and hero Bobby Kennedy. But Schlesinger’s reply to Humphrey elevated the argument above personal feelings to the realm of conviction: “If you do not understand and will not recognize that some of your old friends might oppose your candidacy on grounds of principle — because they sharply dissent from the position you have taken on Vietnam — then you have lost your own sense of reality and are in deep trouble.” A few weeks later, he admitted to Reinhold Niebuhr: “The murder of Robert Kennedy terminated my interest in the campaign, and perhaps in American politics for some time to come. Hubert seems to me a burnt-out case, emasculated and destroyed by L.B.J. and unlikely ever to become a man again.”
Through the decades, on issue after issue, Schlesinger’s liberal values and intellectual clarity stood him in good stead — his implacable hostility to Communism and McCarthyism, his skepticism about the invasion of Cuba, his opposition to the war in Vietnam, his prescience about presidential abuses of power, his critique of multiculturalism, his fear of a quagmire in Afghanistan. But he had a major blind spot, which started with his nearly uncritical devotion to the Kennedys (their intelligence, their style, their will to power) but didn’t end there. The world of “the liberals” was social as well as political — sparkling dinner parties at Hickory Hill, lunches at the Century Club, summers on the Cape. Robert McNamara, being a Kennedy man, was granted membership, and upon his departure from the Pentagon in 1967, at the height of the war for which McNamara bore so much blame, Schlesinger wrote, “You have been one of the greatest public servants in American history, and your departure from the government is an incalculable loss to this nation.” But for Lyndon Johnson, the vulgar and uneducated Texan, whose liberal achievements on race and poverty far surpassed Kennedy’s, the Schlesinger of these letters has utter contempt. (“The Passage of Power,” the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s great Johnson biography, shows just how far the Kennedys and their men took the humiliation of Johnson, and at what cost to Kennedy’s administration.)
Membership in an aristocracy that for so many years enjoyed proximity to power left Schlesinger cut off from public feeling, and unprepared when the reaction came in the form of right-wing populism. After 1968, his political judgment became unmoored. In 1972, when scandal forced Thomas Eagleton from the Democratic ticket, Schlesinger wrote to Marietta Tree: “I am particularly confident that, if nothing else, Nixon’s personal entrance into the campaign will begin to reverse the tide. In any case, I am sure things will be much closer than they appear at present. After all, with all McGovern’s troubles, the party is in a much better situation than it was after Chicago four years ago.” Nixon went on to win in one of the biggest landslides in American history. In 1976, Schlesinger refused to vote for the insufficiently liberal and excessively religious Jimmy Carter, imagining that what Americans wanted was a return to the New Deal when in fact the opposite was true. In 1980 he supported Ted Kennedy’s destructive insurgency, then John Anderson’s hopeless third-party quest, oblivious of the incoming conservative tide. “I really don’t understand why you are so agitated about Reagan,” Schlesinger wrote to his best friend Galbraith on the eve of the epochal 1980 election. “I am sorry to see people like you fall for the Carter cartoon of Reagan as the Great Satan.”
These letters leave me admiring Schlesinger without ever really knowing him. I came of age when “liberal,” stripped of the definite article, became a term of abuse and a label to be avoided. Schlesinger’s correspondence arrives from that ancient era when eggheads instructed presidents and, not without an entry fee, were admitted into the inner sanctum of power.