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Life of The Party
In his journals, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. sings -- and often stings.

Reviewed by Jon Meacham
Sunday, October 7, 2007

JOURNALS, 1952-2000

By Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Penguin Press. 894 pp. $40

John F. Kennedy was out of sorts. It was August 1960, and the constant cultivation of his party's fractious base -- southern conservatives and northern liberals -- was already wearing him down. Over drinks and dinner with his new running mate, Lyndon Johnson, and The Washington Post's Katharine and Philip Graham, Kennedy grumped and grumbled. As Phil Graham told the story the next day to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., JFK finally said:

"The trouble with the northern liberals is that they want their arses kissed all the time. I'm perfectly willing to kiss Mrs. Roosevelt's arse; in fact I rather enjoyed it. But I can't spend all my time doing it."

This small but illuminating offstage glimpse of a great politician is one of the many riches to be found in Schlesinger's journals, which, edited by his sons, offer us vivid insights into life at the highest levels of American political, cultural, literary, journalistic and academic life in the second half of the 20th century. Decade in and decade out, Schlesinger kept up a pungent and penetrating running commentary on -- well, on everyone. The whole world seems to be here: the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, Adlai Stevenson and Norman Mailer, Lauren Bacall and Ted Sorensen, Groucho Marx and Jesse Jackson, Mick Jagger and Fidel Castro, Averell Harriman and Bill Clinton, Marlene Dietrich and Al Gore. Schlesinger wrote formal history with sweep and passion and wit. Now he has given us a final gift: informal history with the same sweep, the same passion and the same wit.

On a visit to Harvard in 1979, the historian, long resident in New York, said, "I had forgotten the peculiar social gracelessness of Cambridge. In the 1950s, we often entertained for visiting dignitaries. The Harvard people, instead of talking to the visitor, would ignore him, cluster among themselves and engage in local gossip. . . . Now that I was the visitor, I was subjected to the same treatment myself." After Richard Nixon moved into the townhouse over the fence from the Schlesingers' in Manhattan, the former president remained as reclusive as ever: "Very few [Nixon] sightings," he wrote in 1980. "The Nixons seem to dine around 6 o'clock, an hour or so before we start pre-prandial drinking, and the house is generally dark by 9. Not New York hours." When Schlesinger's beloved wife, Alexandra, reported seeing Nixon lying in the sun, Schlesinger asked her what he looked like. "Like a man wearing a Nixon mask," she replied. After dining next to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1991, he wrote: "Jackie remains a glowing beauty. She concentrated her charm, as always, and at one point generously informed me that she would rather sit next to me than any person in New York. This would be more convincing if she ever invited us to dinner." In the same era, Schlesinger reported Henry Kissinger's view of Vice President Dan Quayle. "Henry . . . said he couldn't understand why Quayle had such a bad press; he found him well-informed and intelligent. (I take this to mean two things: that Quayle listens reverently to Henry and that Henry thinks Quayle may be President some day.)"

Schlesinger was that rare thing, a historian and a maker of history. He loved martinis, politics, steaks and the New Deal; he was tireless and generous. (A word of disclosure: Though he was more than half a century our elder, Schlesinger was a friend of mine and my wife's.) A chronicler of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and the Kennedys, he was in the arena himself for over 50 years, advising Democrats from Stevenson to Gore. A ferocious partisan, he did not conduct himself in a ferociously partisan manner.

The gossip in the Journals is fun, albeit geeky. In early 1962, President Kennedy asked Schlesinger, his special assistant, to write a paragraph for the State of the Union, a speech that had been drafted by Ted Sorensen. Just before the address was to be delivered, Sorensen told Kennedy, "I really don't see much need for that new paragraph," and left the room. Kennedy decided to keep Schlesinger's language, murmuring, "Ted certainly doesn't go for additions to his speeches!" The next morning Schlesinger's telephone rang. It was the president. Had Arthur seen the "Quotation of the Day" feature in the New York Times? It was from Schlesinger's paragraph. Kennedy loved it. "Ted will die when he sees that," the president remarked.

Schlesinger savored his Kennedy friendship. He is the third man in the evocative photograph of Marilyn Monroe and John and Robert Kennedy taken after JFK's Madison Square Garden birthday celebration in 1962. "I do not think I have seen anyone so beautiful; I was enchanted by her manner and her wit, at once so masked, so ingenuous and so penetrating," Schlesinger wrote of Monroe. "But one felt a terrible unreality about her -- as if talking to someone under water."

For Schlesinger, Dallas was a personal and political tragedy. He had lost a friend and a man he believed a great president. He could never really warm to Lyndon Johnson and became a sentry of Camelot. On Air Force One at Love Field, Johnson asked Kennedy aide Kenny O'Donnell to bring Mrs. Kennedy forward for the swearing-in. O'Donnell hesitated. Coldly, Johnson said, "When I tell you to do something, I want it done -- and fast." Back in Washington that night, Adlai Stevenson, long ambivalent about Kennedy, arrived at the White House, where, Schlesinger said, "we were all sitting around in various stages and forms of distress. Stevenson came in, smiling and chipper, as if nothing at all had happened. . . . He may well now feel that he will have a freer hand, and perhaps more influence, under Johnson than under Kennedy. In any case, it is a most disappointing reaction, and one that it will take me long to forgive."

Over lunch at the Century Association in 1977, Kissinger told Schlesinger that "Donald Rumsfeld was the rottenest person he had known in government -- that it was Rumsfeld who, in pursuit of his own ambitions, had set Kissinger and [Secretary of Defense James R.] Schlesinger against each other, and had persuaded Ford to make George Bush head of the CIA so he would be extinguished as the vice presidential candidate in 1976 (and thereby, Henry added, probably lost Ford the election)." After Anwar Sadat's funeral in 1981 -- at President Reagan's request, Nixon, Ford and Carter went together -- Kissinger told Schlesinger, "As soon as we got into the plane, Nixon was his old self again, trying to manipulate everybody and everything, dropping poisonous remarks, doing his best to set people against each other. Later, when we were in a car by ourselves, Ford said to me, 'Sometimes I wish I had never pardoned that son of a bitch.' "

When Schlesinger turned 60, he became more aware of his age. After a trip to the cathedral in Florence, he wrote: "As I went into the Duomo, it occurred to me that I have been visiting churches in Europe for 45 years, and that they have really done very little for me -- my fault, not theirs, of course; but there it is. Why should I waste my declining years going into churches? . . . I will simplify life by abandoning the inspection of churches, as in earlier years I have abandoned ballet, metaphysics, linguistics and other subjects that, however estimable, are, alas, not for me." A decade later, lunching with two younger men in 1987, Schlesinger observed, "I could not help noting the generational differences in diet. I had a martini and grilled double lamb chops. They had Perrier and chef's salad. I suppose that their diet is better for them. But mine is more fun. I understand the disappearance of cigarettes these days; they are poison. But why has hard liquor, the staff of life, yielded to white wine and, heaven help us, Perrier?"

He could be arch, and he survived criticism with a kind of historically based stoicism. When Robert Kennedy and His Times was published in 1978, Schlesinger was surprised by a hostile reaction in some quarters. The public was interested in Kennedy scandal, not Kennedy substance. He had, Schlesinger writes, "moments of depression" about the book's reception, but then he remembered what Churchill had said when asked how he could sleep every night when he was under great political attack. "I simply say 'God damn them all,' and then I sleep like a baby."

In early 2007, Schlesinger died as he had lived: at work on a book (the second volume of his memoirs), engaged in the battles of the present (he was a fan of "Hardball with Chris Matthews") and out on the town (he was at a Manhattan restaurant on the night he was fatally stricken). He often spoke of the "unpredictability of politics, and of life." This much, at least, seems safe to predict: It will be a long time before we see another collection of journals as rich, as fascinating and as illuminating as Schlesinger's. ¿

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, is the author of "Franklin and Winston" and "American Gospel." He is at work on a book about Andrew Jackson's White House.

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