Saturday, March 10, 2007

in memoriam: arthur schlesinger


We raise a glass, then, to Arthur Schlesinger.

He died last week. One minute sitting at a restaurant, telling stories and enjoying himself, and practically the next minute, he was gone. This was tragic but entirely fitting, the kind of end he'd have certainly wanted, if he'd paused long enough to contemplate something so silly.

All of you are too young to remember anything of this, much less the man himself, so to recap: Schlesinger was the son of historian Elizabeth Bancroft; he was a freakishly intelligent early-admin to Harvard; he (like everybody else with a heart and a brain at the time) fell in with the doomed campaigns of Adlai Stevenson; and he, for services rendered, was taken into the fold of the Kennedy administration as a 'special assistant' to the president.

He came to that administration fully-vetted as a serious historian. He'd written an semi-immortal work, after all, 'The Age of Jackson,' and he'd written it as a young man, fiercely intelligent and deeply inquiring.

As hardly ever before or since, the Kennedy administration was the perfect fit for such a creature. He basked in the particular aura of Camelot - the cocktail parties that lasted until dawn, the gorgeous secretaries, and most of all the all-pervasive feeling that a vital new age was dawning, an age that could divest itself of all the dead trappings of previous generations.

That's what they did, those two Kennedys and the brace of greyhounds they assembled around themselves: they activated HOPE ... they accessed nothing less than that tired old chestnut, the American Dream. They sucked in everybody - from Negro porters to Dupont society matrons - and created a feeling of fresh beginning, a feeling that it was no longer the world of your parents but yours, to make of what you could.

Schlesinger drank it all in; he revelled not only in the genteel debauchery of the Kennedy social scene but also the thrill any historian would feel if they had their hands on the live wire of history being made. And he was always explicitly clear in maintaining that the two worlds didn't detract from each other.

He insisted on it, in fact: that historians owe it to their readers to live in the real world, not cloistered academic towers. He walked the corridors of power carrying the notebook of the historian, so it was only natural he incurred the suspicion and dislike of both the historians and the powerful.

The only ones who mattered to him at the time always evinced a wry affection for him. Robert Kennedy bridled at the watching presence of so obvious a memoirist, but he allowed that Schlesinger had a first-rate mind (a rare compliment, given the source). JFK himself, naturally, took a deeper view. 'I don't currently have time for posterity,' he used to quip. 'I leave that to Arthur, God help us.'

Perhaps the best assessment of the man came earliest, however. As a freakishly young kid (although certainly not unprecedentedly so ... a small cadre of such early admins have paraded through the halls of Harvard over the centuries), he was classmate with Young Joe Kennedy, the broad-smiled, wide-shouldered, stogie-chomping, gin-swilling, debutante-deflowering older brother of the future president. Young Joe was the chosen one in that vast family; he was the one who old Ambassador Kennedy had naturally chosen to push for political office (nobody then dreamt of the Oval Office, regardless of what their memoirs might say), and he took the very earliest Kennedy shine to this provincial Midwestern kid. There were rumors that said Midwestern kid helped said Kennedy crown prince write more than one academic work that led to the graduation of both. In any case, Young Joe had this to say about bow-tied young Arthur: 'He suits me down to the ground: he knows everything, and he puts it all at my disposal.'

It's doubtful a more thoroughly Kennedyesque appraisal could be found, and it played out in the decades to come. Schlesinger worked for JFK until the awful day in Dallas, and then he worked for RFK, with an even more open, fervent heart, until THAT awful day.

The combination broke the working parts of him, as it did the working parts of so many. He pretty much retired to scholastic work - and to a certain degree of prescience, writing 'The Imperial Presidency' in 1973, a book that looks darkly at the tendency of the executive branch, when in the hands of unscrupulous men, to gobble up as much power as it can get its hands on.

Schlesinger lived long enough to see just how exaggerated that tendency could get, and in his last years he took great delight in skewering the evil midgets currently encamped where once he saw giants walk.

He left us when we needed him most, but that's always the way of such men, and such times. The only consolation - and it's a big one, in fact the only one - is that he transformed his White House access into two magnificent works of history, 'Robert Kennedy and His Times' and 'A Thousand Days.' These are permanent works, as full of intelligence and gossip and pitch-perfect pacing as was their author.

So we raise a glass to Arthur Schlesinger. and we offer a humble nunc dimittis to the great historian of the Kennedy era.

15 comments:

beepy said...

What a lovely tribute.

Kevin Caron said...

How long do we have to wait until the next 'hope-activated' presidency?


Great post.

Sam said...

Thanks, Steve, wonderfully said.

Is "A Thousand Days" still in print? Or, better, which of his is the book you'd hand to the customer who said, "I've never read Schlesinger, but would like to try him"?

Kevin, I think it's worth joining the Obama camp for the chance of that very thing, slim chance though it is.

steve said...

I'd probably give somebody 'The Age of Jackson' ... not because it's better than 'A Thousand Days,' but because the latter might be poisoned by conscious or unconscious political baggage on the part of the reader - whereas I'm the only one who still can't stand Old Hickory.

steve said...

Oh, and by the way: Barak Obama's 'camp' most certainly ISN'T worth joining. Not only is his presidency completely impossible, but it would be an unmitigated disaster if it somehow happened. So there.

Kevin Caron said...

Am I the only one hoping Gore throws his hat in?

Sam said...

Oh, lord. Tell us more about unmitigated disasters, please--never seen anything like that. We'll turn instead for hope to the hardened veterans of vapid sloganeering and bald-faced lying.

Gore will turn into exactly the same check-my-facial-expression-in-the-monitor pundit puppet if he runs again, which he knows all too well.

You just don't like Obama because he smokes.

locke said...

"Barak Obama's 'camp' most certainly ISN'T worth joining. Not only is his presidency completely impossible, but it would be an unmitigated disaster if it somehow happened. So there."

For you relative SteveWorld Newbies, his record in predicting political trends is about as solid as his record at picking Oscar winners.

steve said...

It doesn't take a Kreskin to predict disaster about Obama. He has one horrible thing in common with our current Chief Executive: he's totally inexperienced. Look what happens when somebody totally unexperienced manages to get the Oval Office - either by wealthy evil friends or by smooth oratory.

I say we hold out for a statesman, if such a thing can be found at this late date.

locke said...

Gore-Obama '08.

Kevin Caron said...

Is that too much to ask?

steve said...

That would be splendid. That would be splendid. The most charismatic Democrat in the last fifty years would have eight years to learn the job as second to the least charismatic Democrat in the last fifty years. The result: everybody wins, and we get our planet back!

But that won't happen, because even if it DOES end up being Gore/Obama, they'll be trounced by whatever Republican they face. Sigh.

lockep said...

"because even if it DOES end up being Gore/Obama, they'll be trounced by whatever Republican they face. Sigh."

I understand your tendency toward pessimism -- after all, this IS the Democratic Party we're talking about. The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight.

But I also remember, Steve, your dire pessimism regarding the Bush Administration two years ago.

Here's the deal -- I don't doubt for a MOMENT the Dems have PLENTY of time to blow it. And Gore is hated by the Right ALMOST as much as Hillary. Of course, the Right isn't going to vote Democrat anyway, so who cares? As for the vast middle, the moderates, the independents -- Gore MIGHT be just the tonic (Plus, of course, the Superstar Kid, Barack).

But here's the thing. Right now, the Republicans do NOT have a candidate. Not one. There is not a single DECLARED Republican candidate right now that would be assured of a presidential victory. Rudy would do well in the popular vote, but is going to have a LOT of problems surviving the primaries. McCain is running on empty and if you think he looks desperate NOW, wait until fall when Iraq is REALLY a mess (I know, I know -- how could it get WORSE?! Oh, just you wait and see). Mitt is a non-starter at this point. Fact is, the GOP is still WAITING for their canidate to show up. It's NOT any of the current bunch. (and no, it's not Newt, either.)

Of course, Rudy or McCain could pull it together and somehow win over both fiscal AND social conservatives, but so far they're both failing miserably at winning the Right or the GOP -- in fact, I can almost imagine a McCain-Guliani INDEPENDENT ticket in '08. And as much as I've wanted to see a viable, legitimate Third Party in America, that would pretty much be Damaged Goods. McCain has done such a good job of selling himself out to EVERYONE that NO ONE trusts him anymore. And he's certainly NOT going to accept a secondary running-mate position to Rudy.

Now, as I said at the start, I'm just as fearful of the Democrats' unfailing ability to fuck up as anyone, and I still believe it's very possible for someone to pop up in the GOP who will, as usual, beat the Dems.

But 2006 was a nice change of pace, and things certainly haven't gotten any BETTER for the GOP in the past 6 months. Plus, try as they might, the Democrats have managed NOT to completely step on their collective dicks in their first months in control of Congress.

So no, it's NOT a 'foregone conclusion' that ANY Republican will 'trounce' the Democratic Prez canidate in '08. If it's Hillary, well, maybe -- hatred for her runs from the homocidal psychotic on the far right, to just general annoyance and distaste in the middle, to even someone like me, a left-leaning, moderate-liberal Democrat who just sees her as a shamelessly opportunistic, hollow, craven machine after power for her own glorification and little else.

So gimme Gore-Obama (or hell, even Edwards-Obama) and let the GOP do its best!

RW said...

First of all, his name was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. His father was Arthur Schlesinger -- an important distinction, because his father (who died in 1965) was also well-known, and it is the father's picture you have posted.

Anonymous said...

You can't stand Old Hickory? How dare you say such a thing? Jackson was one of this country's greatest heroes. Although I would have favored the politics of John Quincy Adams, I would never deny Jackson his rightful place amongst our nation's greatest men. You [Steve] are a blackguard for saying such a thing. You probably hate Jackson because he gave the British their due at New Orleans yoe anglophile. The British lion is a pussy. Reichmarshal