Voices of America
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is one of many fascinating personalities revealed in his wide-ranging Journals
By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Edited by Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger
Penguin, 894 pp., $40
On Dec. 29, 1952, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. paid a farewell call to a "cheerful, scrubbed and natty" Harry S. Truman. The president was "in a generally philosophic mood about the beating he had been taking from the press and about his confidence that history would vindicate him," Schlesinger wrote, adding, "I noticed that he still speaks of FDR as 'the President.' "
Throughout these diary entries, Schlesinger also treats Franklin D. Roosevelt as "the President." He reproaches himself for failing to finish his "Age of Roosevelt" project after three volumes, leaving FDR in 1936. But Schlesinger's life since 1952 has been a New Deal manifesto of its own. His teaching, lecturing, and writing (a dozen non-Roosevelt books) served the muse of history. His pursuit of liberal argument provided intellectual sustenance for a dozen would-be successors to FDR. The Democratic Party consumed his time. So did his "hyperactive social life," about which he regrets not a canapé. In 1952, in Chicago, he accepts a ride from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In 1983, at a "typically New York round" of socializing, he exits a party "around 11 and made [my] way to the West Side for a party at Mick Jagger's."
These "Journals," edited by his sons Andrew and Stephen, form a Herculean, indeed Rooseveltian, task. He has bequeathed historic insights and anecdotes, the bricks and mortar of a giant Works Progress Administration project. Schlesinger's sometimes stirring, occasionally sad, and often sardonic jottings form a labor-intensive public works project for his fellow historians and biographers. They must now revise and extend the biographies of 10 presidents, plus sundry other pols, literary lights, and the dramatis personae of People magazine. For those who wish to understand the politics of those five decades, "Journals" is essential.
Academic works, with footnotes and citations, plow oft-tilled soil. Since they seldom feature high-octane, off-the-record revelations, readers rarely say, "I never knew that before." They will likely murmur "wow!" at every page of "Journals." The Kennedy Library might start a new wing. JFK, who calls Dwight Eisenhower "cold," also says, "I made a mistake in putting Bobby in the Justice Department," wishing he had sent his brother to run the CIA.
Fallen idols litter the landscape, and Schlesinger's eulogies are dry-eyed. Hubert Humphrey "was corrupted by the desire to please." He faults Adlai Stevenson for taking JFK's assassination all too well and says the man he helped make a liberal icon "had many moments of petulance, querulousness, indecision." Son of a distinguished historian and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for history in 1946 for "The Age of Jackson," Schlesinger is self-confident and opinionated. Candor dominates his "Journals," even when Schlesinger turns his skeptical gaze upon his life's work. In 1972, when President Nixon was "ignoring even the forms of congressional consultation," the historian ruefully realizes that "those uncritical theories of the strong presidency that historians and political scientists, myself among them, were propagating with such enthusiasm in the 1950s have come home to roost."
Schlesinger's attraction to showbiz began in the White House in the early 1960s when he asked JFK for permission to write movie reviews. The president approved, "as long as you treat Peter Lawford with respect." A cinematic pace sharpens his narrative, as though directed by Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. Thus, Groucho Marx "looks like Groucho Marx," while Gina Lollobrigida is "a disappointment" and Geraldine Ferraro, "on small acquaintance, seems a bright and pleasant woman in the Joan Blondell style."
No one opens a can of soup or makes a tuna sandwich in "Journals." The author is a dining-out dervish, at Locke-Ober or his favorite clubs, sipping martinis or Jack Daniel's. He died at a New York restaurant on Feb. 28 this year, about eight months before his 90th birthday. His most consistent dining companion was Henry Kissinger, whom he regards warily. But his former Harvard colleague, as "his usual charming/funny/devious/satisfied self," can really dish, whether at the Century or the Four Seasons ("his invitation"). At a 1977 lunch, Henry told Arthur "that Donald Rumsfeld was the rottenest person he had known in government."
Some events seem like torture. An afternoon of Diana Trilling denouncing Lillian Hellman? I'd bribe the butler for an escape route. Schlesinger does not regret moving to New York, echoing Henry Adams on "the peculiar social gracelessness of Cambridge," where, in the 1950s, he and his back-fence neighbor, John Kenneth Galbraith, gave Harvard a liberal reputation. In 1979, the author is dismayed when his new back-fence neighbor in Manhattan is Richard Nixon, who "ought to be in prison." When Schlesinger meets Julie Nixon Eisenhower, he is charmed.
Andrew and Stephen Schlesinger confronted 6,000 pages, which they edited down to under 900. Repetition is an occupational hazard. Readers learn too often that Bill Clinton is an endearing rogue and what Adam Smith said about nations and ruin.
Full disclosure: The author mentions me and a mundane moment at the 1972 Democratic convention. I was but a minor note in the kinetic swirl surrounding Arthur Schlesinger, which spins dazzlingly here: Woody Allen and Edmund Wilson, George Kennan and George Plimpton, Dean Acheson and Judy Garland, Tony Randall and Tony Lewis, Elizabeth Taylor and Maxwell Taylor, Kevin White and Teddy White, Reinhold Niebuhr and Tom Winship, Jack Lemmon and Anthony Eden, Mel Laird and Ed Logue, Lloyd Bentsen and Isaiah Berlin, Andre Malraux and Pat Moynihan, Joan Didion and Shirley MacLaine, Margaret Thatcher and Marlene Dietrich, Frank Bellotti and Carlos Fuentes, Eric Sevareid and Erica Jong, Fidel Castro and Nelson Rockefeller.
Arthur Schlesinger was a meticulous historian, a brilliant polemicist, and a prodigious gossip. His sons display these gifts in all their glory in "Journals." As one of the author's least favorite Democrats, Lyndon B. Johnson, liked to say, "This is history with the bark off."
Martin F. Nolan wrote for the Globe from 1961 to 2001.