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.