Friends Who Fit Together Smartly
Galbraith and Schlesinger, Like-Minded Neighbors

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.

Where are the heirs of the Galbraiths and Schlesingers? The generation immediately in their wake is itself already in retirement, having produced no obvious successors. And it seems apparent the generation after that will not, either.

Brad DeLong, a 45-year-old Berkeley economist who has studied Galbraith and writes a popular liberal blog, agreed that the two men "bestrode this narrow world like titans compared to our puny contemporary selves." It is a kind of parlor game to contemplate who comes closest in the current age, on either side of the ideological divide.

On the left, Paul Krugman is an economist with all of Galbraith's professional credentials and a column in the New York Times, but his arguments are more likely to rally partisans than to redefine "how the broad literate public views the world," DeLong wrote in an e-mail. On the right, writer and activist William Kristol may have "Galbraith's political touch but not his smarts, his academic status, or his ability to make up new ways of looking at the world."

Among historians, there is no one who holds the sort of sway simultaneously with elite and popular audiences the way Schlesinger did at his peak. "One answer is simply the world is getting bigger, and communication is getting better, so there are many more players and each has a smaller role," said DeLong, who acknowledged that he was "not happy with that answer."

Richard Parker, author of a well-regarded biography of Galbraith, partly blames television, with its hunger for glibness, for changing the nature of popular debate. Elegant writers such as Galbraith, who wrote "The Affluent Society" in 1958, or Schlesinger -- whose second Pulitzer, in 1966, was won for "A Thousand Days," his memoir of the Kennedy White House -- are less likely to be read and embraced by a wide public.

Universities, meanwhile, are less likely to be home to such dazzling writers, the kind who march forth with ideas and arguments touching broadly on issues of the day. In recent decades, ever more narrow specialization has been the path to tenure and academic respect in most disciplines. Campuses are no longer cultivating intellectuals "with capacious minds -- the big thinkers -- like Ken and Arthur," Parker says. "It's a triumph of the smaller man, and woman."

Peter Galbraith, Galbraith's son and a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, says that in retrospect he is struck by how everyone seemed to know everyone else in those days. "The American elite was a lot smaller then, and that made it possible for people to know each other and develop these friendships."

Cambridge in the '50s was a wonderfully social place. Not to mention well lubricated. Galbraith and Schlesinger were both regulars at a Sunday evening cocktail hour at the home of Bernard DeVoto, a Mark Twain scholar who wrote the "The Easy Chair" column for Harper's magazine. He worshiped martinis. Among those in their circle were novelist Wallace Stegner and chef Julia Child and her husband, Paul Child.

It was in these days, Schlesinger recalled, that Galbraith's friendship helped shape his own personality. Schlesinger had been told since boyhood that he was brilliant, but he had not always worn it well. "I was indignant, hot-tempered, brutal in my style," said Schlesinger, recalling the "explosions with which I used to spoil Cambridge dinner parties. . . . Ken taught me that irony is more effective than indignation."

What was notable about Schlesinger and Galbraith was their zeal for pushing beyond the insularity of those dinner parties. In the late 1940s, both men were founding members of the influential Americans for Democratic Action, which pushed the Democratic Party to be more vigorously anti-Communist and pro-New Deal. In the 1950s, they worked on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson, the favorite of the intellectuals.

It was in 1960 that their influence was most decisive. Stevenson was still the choice of most liberals, but John F. Kennedy had been cultivating Schlesinger and Galbraith vigorously. There were regular dinners with the candidate over lobster stew at Cambridge's Locke-Ober restaurant, during which Kennedy impressed the men with his willingness to shatter stale conventions and think decisively. Many colleagues regarded it as a betrayal, but JFK recognized he had scored a coup with liberals when Schlesinger and Galbraith backed his candidacy.

After the election, Schlesinger went to the White House staff and Galbraith was named ambassador to India. By coincidence, the two friends were together -- at a meeting in New York with Katharine Graham and the editors of Newsweek -- when a clerk burst in with the news from Dallas and the Kennedy years came to a violent end.

There was more violence ahead. Schlesinger and Galbraith had been skeptical of the Vietnam War from the outset. In the spring of 1967, they were at lunch at Quo Vadis in New York with their New Frontier friend Richard Goodwin when they asked themselves how they could spend their summers on the beach while the country lurched toward catastrophe in Southeast Asia. Within months, all set about writing books to lay the intellectual foundations for the antiwar movement.

Schlesinger, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, Alexandra, is depressed by the circularity of his life when it comes to war. In old age, he is still publishing books, as he did in 2004 ("War and the American Presidency"), against what he sees as another ill-fated venture in Iraq. "People say we cannot 'cut and run,' " he observed. "Cut and run was what got us out of Vietnam. To hell with it. The longer we stay, the more problems we create."

Galbraith, no doubt, would have agreed, since they agreed on nearly everything whenever they spoke. One of the last times they met in person was on an autumn day in 2004 when Schlesinger paid a visit to Francis Avenue. Robert Schlesinger, 33, was with his father for the visit to Galbraith, who was his godfather.

The day was bleak, the old house dark in the fading light. Galbraith was too weak to stand for his guests. But the mood quickly brightened as they toured the past. "They talked about old times -- the New Deal, and Kennedy," the son recalled. "Galbraith lit up the moment Dad walked in."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company