Friends Who Fit Together Smartly

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., far left, and John Kenneth Galbraith, far right, in Calcutta.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., far left, and John Kenneth Galbraith, far right, in Calcutta. (U.s. Information Service/jfk Presidential Library And Museum, Boston)
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

There was a time -- it's been decades now -- when politicians or pundits would call people "liberal intellectuals" and not mean it as an insult.

The phrase carried no sarcasm or disdain. Nor was it an abstraction. There were specific individuals who answered by the name. The chances are good, in fact, that the liberal intellectuals being spoken of lived at one of two addresses: 30 Francis Ave. or 109 Irving St., both in Cambridge, Mass.

The homes were on lots that backed up to each other. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith lived on Francis Avenue. His best friend, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., lived just over the brick wall on Irving Street during the 1940s and '50s.

For more than six decades, these former neighbors fashioned one of the past century's most remarkable friendships. They witnessed history, wrote about it and, in no small measure, shaped it.

Once a towering figure in national life, Galbraith lived so long that by the time the papers reported his death a week ago at 97, many readers surely had scant appreciation of the shadow he once cast. Schlesinger lives on -- physically frail but mentally keen at 88. He is almost alone now, one of the very few surviving members of a generation of academic giants.

How to convey the way public intellectuals such as Galbraith and Schlesinger loomed over American politics and ideas for the quarter-century following World War II?

The easiest way would be to point to their latter-day equivalents. But there simply is no one these days who does what they did. They were dominant figures in their intellectual disciplines, but their books were bestsellers. They emblazoned the covers of Time magazine (twice for Galbraith, once for Schlesinger). They steered the Democrats and rallied the fight against the Republicans, and when their side won, they occupied coveted positions in the government. They moved happily among celebrities such as Lauren Bacall and Angie Dickinson; they sat for Playboy interviews. They were especially close to the family -- the Kennedys -- that epitomized the merger of celebrity and politics. And, of course, they were on Richard Nixon's enemies list.

At the time they met, during World War II, Galbraith and Schlesinger were still young men, not yet famous but on the verge of becoming so. Indeed, they were to become well known in part because their accomplishments were at such a young age. Galbraith, still in his thirties, had been in charge of the government's price-control program early in the war, and in 1945 was director of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. Schlesinger, still in his twenties, in 1946 won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes for "The Age of Jackson," a history of the seventh president. Harvard faculty appointments soon followed.

"We all grew up together," Schlesinger said in an interview last week, referring to the overlapping circles of accomplished friends in Cambridge and Washington that he and Galbraith had in common. He was thinking of people, all long deceased, such as Joe Alsop, the columnist; Phil Graham, once the publisher of this paper; Paul Porter, founder of the Arnold & Porter law firm; and McGeorge Bundy, the Harvard dean and Kennedy aide. "Ken was the leader because he was taller and older. . . . I took everything he said seriously."

Galbraith -- 6 feet 8 inches tall -- was born Oct. 15, 1908. In a coincidence that somehow anticipated their personal rapport, Schlesinger -- a foot shorter -- was born Oct. 15, 1917.

It is odd but inevitable that men once known for their precocity grappled together with the infirmities of age. Though Galbraith was mentally acute nearly to the end, his hearing was so poor that he and Schlesinger could no longer talk by phone as they once did. Schlesinger, who said he boasted uncommonly robust health for his first 86 years, notes ruefully that he is "unsteady on my feet, faltering in my diction."

Not so faltering. The thoughts still gather with the same illuminating precision and fluency as ever. But they are expressed more slowly now, as if pushing them to the surface is a physical effort.

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