Jeff Shesol is a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a founding partner at West Wing Writers. He is the author of “Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy and the Feud That Defined a Decade.”
In January 1962, the president of Harvard University, Nathan M. Pusey, issued an ultimatum to one of the most celebrated members of his faculty: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, public intellectual and, at that time, special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. Pusey’s message: Return or resign. Schlesinger had been on leave from Harvard since 1960, when he had gone to work on Kennedy’s campaign, and now, as a member of the White House staff, he showed no great eagerness to get back to the care and feeding of graduate students. Still, Schlesinger put the question to JFK (a Harvard man himself). “I think you would be more useful down here,” Kennedy told him, “than teaching those sons of privilege up there.” Schlesinger stayed.
Pusey demanded that Schlesinger choose between the academy and the arena. But Schlesinger, who died in 2007 at the age of 89, lived his long, rich and public life in defiance of that choice — rejecting, with vigor and with due reference to Thucydides, Tocqueville and Gibbon, the notion that one who chronicles history cannot also affect it. While still a student at Harvard, in the 1930s, Schlesinger had already concluded that “the only knowledge worth anything is grounded in experience.” Time would temper that view, but only slightly. He insisted to the end that a historian need not be “a monastic scholar, austerely removed from the passing emotions and conflicts of his own day.” That put him at odds with many in his profession. But Schlesinger would not forsake either calling for the other. Reconciling the two was his consuming challenge.
It is likewise the central theme of “Schlesinger,” a new biography by Richard Aldous, a professor of history at Bard College. Late in life, Schlesinger released a substantial (if partial) memoir, and the decade since his death has seen the publication of his letters and journals. Aldous, though, is the first biographer to have the benefit of his personal papers, which add color and perspective to this account of the man, his ambitions and his contributions to American political life. “Schlesinger” is not quite a full treatment: The book has much less to say about his scholarship, despite its enduring influence, than his “near addiction to the narcotic of political battle,” as Aldous puts it, and devotes fewer than 30 pages to the last four decades of his life, productive though they were. That aside, it is a convincing portrait, rendered with skill and sensitivity, sympathetic toward its subject while capturing the quirks that made him, in the words of one contemporary, “so Arthurish.”
Schlesinger is so closely identified with the Kennedys that it can be hard, today, to appreciate just how fully formed a public figure he was before Camelot. It was JFK who had courted Schlesinger, not the reverse — seeking his advice on historical questions, inviting him sailing at Hyannis Port, asking him for comments on the manuscript of “Profiles in Courage.” Schlesinger had been teaching at Harvard since the age of 30; by then he had already received the Pulitzer for “The Age of Jackson,” his audacious reinterpretation of early American democracy. A decade later he won almost universal acclaim for the three volumes of “The Age of Roosevelt,” his sweeping history of the New Deal.
Yet Kennedy would not have been drawn to Schlesinger — and he to Kennedy — had the historian been preoccupied with the past. As Theodore White described him, Schlesinger was an “action-intellectual”: a founder of the anti-communist Americans for Democratic Action (ADA); a speechwriter for Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956; a popular essayist on everything that piqued his interest, from the Supreme Court to the movies. He was a combatant — energetically so — in the defining struggles of his day. As a young man, he confessed his fascination with “the course that ideas take as they travel” from intellectual circles “into the mind of the politician or the man of action and become . . . laws on the statute books.” By the time he signed on with JFK, his own ideas seemed destined to take that course.
In January 1961, President-elect Kennedy invited Schlesinger to work at the White House. “I am not sure what I would be doing as Special Assistant,” Schlesinger said, “but if you think I can help, I would like very much to come.” Kennedy replied, “Well, I am not sure what I will be doing as President either, but I am sure there will be enough at the White House to keep us both busy.” Yet Schlesinger’s role was ill-defined. He had no policy portfolio. In part, he operated as a liaison to liberals such as Stevenson, who considered JFK too conservative; he also helped with speeches and searched, outside the usual, bureaucratic channels, for ideas worthy of Kennedy’s attention. Schlesinger’s detractors — men who thought him high-handed or envied his easy access to the president — cut him out of key discussions and made merciless fun of the fact that he had been assigned an office in the East Wing, far from the action. (Rubbing it in, Pierre Salinger, JFK’s press secretary, suggested that Schlesinger must have found the “calmer atmosphere” of the East Wing “more congenial to his cerebrations.”)
From time to time, as Aldous recounts, Schlesinger was able to influence Kennedy’s thinking on pressing issues — for example, during the summer of 1961, he persuaded Kennedy to seek a middle ground between confrontation and conciliation toward the Soviet Union in Berlin. But on the whole he wrote too many memos on too many topics, for diminishing returns. What JFK mainly seemed to want from Schlesinger was his company: Frequently, as evening approached, he would beckon Schlesinger into the Oval Office to have a drink and talk. Yet these were not idle conversations. Kennedy recognized that, as he often said, “history depends on who writes it.” Schlesinger, of course, knew this, too. That tacit understanding found expression sooner than either man expected: Schlesinger published “A Thousand Days,” his account of the Kennedy administration, in 1965, only two years after its abrupt, violent end.
“A Thousand Days” won Schlesinger his second Pulitzer Prize; an invitation to join the faculty of the City University of New York soon followed. (He accepted.) Yet the book’s heroic portrait of Kennedy heightened the sense of Schlesinger as a court historian — as a man who, according to Time, had “savored the pleasures and perquisites of power” and was now returning the favor. In his own defense, Schlesinger quoted Yeats: “I have said all the good I know and all the evil. I have kept nothing back necessary to understanding.” In fact he held a number of things back, out of a sense of propriety and a concern for national security. And the book, written without the benefit of emotional distance, can overstate its claims.
Yet Schlesinger’s biases do not exceed those of most biographers. And “eyewitness history,” for all its pitfalls, is no less treacherous than trying to reconstruct decisions and personalities long after the fact. As Schlesinger later insisted, his access enabled him to convey something of “the mood and relationships of the Kennedy years which no future historian could ever get on the basis of the documents.” It also reinforced his appreciation of “the role of chance and contingency” in history — and the fact that “confusion, ignorance . . . and sheer stupidity” shape events no less than trends and plans do. That awareness — apparent throughout “A Thousand Days” as well as later works such as “The Imperial Presidency” (1973) — is one of the reasons why the book remains indispensable.
I was fortunate to get to know Schlesinger while I was writing a book about the feud between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. In 1998, when I was offered a job as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, Schlesinger strongly encouraged me to shelve my plans for a second book and seize the chance to observe a presidency up close. The historian Ted Widmer also served as a speechwriter, and Clinton sometimes convened dinners of presidential historians. President Barack Obama did the same. Still, the last White House “historian-in-residence,” in the Schlesingerian sense, was Eric Goldman of Princeton, who served under President Johnson. That was half a century ago. If there have been no more Schlesingers, the slide toward specialization in both the study of history and the practice of politics might be to blame. Or maybe the angry anti-intellectualism of the right — present in Schlesinger’s time but predominant in ours — makes presidents hesitate to put an egghead on the payroll. Or perhaps, as Aldous’s book underscores, Schlesinger’s singular qualities — his natural brilliance; his graceful and incisive writing; his public standing; and, not least, his determination to speak frankly to the powerful and get the powerful, at least sometimes, to listen — mean that his role will remain impossible to replicate. There will only be one Age of Schlesinger.
By Richard Aldous
Norton. 486 pp. $29.95