A Historian Who Made The Ivory Tower Glisten
Friday, March 2, 2007
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. is history. He died Wednesday at 89. For more than six decades, he was one of America's most recognizable public intellectuals. Seeing him with his bow tie and his Harvard University credentials, we had the reassuring feeling that a smart guy was doing some heavy thinking about this country's most serious problems.
He was an unapologetic liberal, able to articulate the lefty perspective as the country moved more and more to the right.
He had about him an avuncular air. And a timelessness. He was a compact guy who was larger than life.
He liked hard liquor, disdained white wine. He preferred jazz and classic movies. He was a fan of the Boston Braves baseball team, which left the city in 1953. He was, in a way, frozen in time, like Austin Powers -- International Man of History!
This analogy came to me in late November 2000. As the country waited to find out who would be the 43rd president, Schlesinger and I had lunch together at the Jefferson Hotel. He was in Washington making the rounds to publicize his autobiography, "A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950." He was quietly outrageous. He pooh-poohed the fish-and-fowl on the menu as women's food. He told the waiter to bring him meat. He ordered a martini.
You can read about his illustrious career in the obituaries. He copped a pair of Pulitzer Prizes and served as an adviser to President John F. Kennedy. You can read about his political importance in the elegiac essays. He was a champion of anti-communist liberalism and a critic of "imperial" presidencies.
With his death, we lose one of the last examples of someone who moved easily from academia to mainstream politics to high society and back.
To his family, he was an adviser as well. His son Stephen, for years the director of the World Policy Institute, says he will miss conversations with his father. "He was a wonderful person to get advice from," Stephen says. Father and son mulled over careers, books, the latest political imbroglio in Washington. "He loved gossip."
Though his father lived in the fishbowl, Stephen says, "he liked to have his family around him all the time.
To his friends, he was a generous presence. Elizabeth Drew, a Washington writer and longtime pal, says Schlesinger "had a great sense of humor. He was witty, one of the great conversationalists."
To fellow historians, he was a mentor and a guide. "He was the inheritor of a grand tradition of narrative history," says Douglas Brinkley, who teaches at Tulane University. "He showed us that good history could also be great literature. It did need to be factual, but you could still have your own point of view."
After publication of "A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House," some people ridiculed him as a court historian, Brinkley says, "but his scholarship was impeccable."
Brinkley remembers having coffee with Schlesinger in Milan. It was raining. As usual, Schlesinger was passing along a few pearls to the younger historian. One thing you have got to watch out for, he told Brinkley, is ephemera. He said that if he had written fewer op-ed pieces and book blurbs for other people, he might have been able to produce two or three more history volumes.
He told me the same thing at the Jefferson Hotel. "I don't think I have made as much of my life as I should have," he said. "I should have written more books."
But his omnipresence on the intellectual landscape "is what made him so special," Brinkley says. "He made being a historian glamorous. He had a special style."
To a nation, he was a compass point. Adore him or disagree with him, he spoke with a historian's worldview. The architects of the war in Iraq, he told C-SPAN in an interview that will be aired on Saturday, "do not know enough history, and they duplicated the stupidity of the Vietnam War."
At lunch, he said he was planning to write the second volume of his autobiography. Yesterday, a spokesman for the publisher of the first part, Houghton Mifflin, said that as far as she knew a manuscript does not exist. The working title for Volume 2 was "Unfinished Business."
Maybe he did write one too many opinion pieces and appear on one too many interview shows. But, according to his son Robert, who lives in Alexandria, there are more works of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that might be of interest to historians and history: years and years of personal diaries.