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The Great Bow Tie View of History

One of modern America’s most recognized public intellectuals.

By From the July/August 2014 issue

Arthur Schlesinger (in the bow tie) watching the flight of Alan Shepard at the White House.
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The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Edited by Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger

(Random House, 631 pages, $35)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. never explored the sweeping plains of my native Australia—indeed, it is hard to imagine him doing so when there remained parts of Europe still untouched by an Ivy League mission civilisatrice. Schlesinger’s attitude toward all things antipodean probably represented a rare political concurrence with Henry Kissinger, who in 1991 appalled a Sydney business roundtable by admitting that “When I am shaving in the morning I am not thinking about Australian foreign policy.” Which brings us to the present question: A mere Australian presuming to discuss one of modern America’s most recognized public intellectuals? Cut to Ambrose Bierce: “Can such things be?”

Still, in some respects, absence from the Beltway might aid a reviewer of this selection from Schlesinger’s correspondence, which spanned more than sixty years and included penpals who need no introduction: Kennedy, Humphrey, McNamara, Niebuhr, Kissinger. However distant in physical terms Australia remains from Schlesinger’s preferred environment, it is no more alien in societal terms to that environment than is America’s own “flyover country,” the subject of a gripping Onion exposé from 1996:

A U.S. Geographic Survey expeditionary force announced yesterday that it has discovered an unexplored and heretofore unknown land region between the New York and California coasts. “We shall call this land ‘the Midwest’,” said Dirk Zachary, New York City native and leader of the 200-man exploratory team. “And its primitive inhabitants shall be known as ‘Midwesterners.’”….early reports depict a region as backward as it is vast. “Many of the basics of a civilized culture appear to be entirely absent,” said Gina Strauch, a Los Angeles-based anthropologist. “They have yet to discover the film industry, and their knowledge of restaurants is sketchy at best.”

If ever a man chose his genes well, that man was Schlesinger. Descended via his mother (a Bancroft) not merely from James K. Polk’s Navy Secretary George Bancroft, but from one of the Mayflower arrivals, he also inherited from his Austro-Prussian father a super-sized continental intellect and a true historian’s outlook. After attending the tony Philip Exeter Academy as a teenager, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard, where the elder Schlesinger was on the faculty, at age twenty. During the Second World War, he worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA of its day, and plugged away at his first book, a study of the Jackson administration that won him his first Pulitzer Prize at the age of twenty-eight. From there he joined his father on the faculty at Harvard, despite his not having obtained a doctoral degree. The young Schlesinger, it seemed, could do no wrong.

One of his few early missteps was to become, at the age of fourteen, friends with the Kennedy least capable of benefiting him: poor Rosemary, later lobotomized, with whom he tripped the light fantastic. (“My memory was,” Schlesinger wrote in old age, “that she insisted on leading me—probably right, since I was a bad dancer.”) Another misstep: his early reluctance to support young J.F.K., on whom, in a 1946 letter home, he passed a tepid initial judgment. “Very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side.” 

Yet overall it is less the occasional faux pas than the predominant canniness that impresses. Watching the young Schlesinger must have been rather like watching the young Mozart or the young Rimbaud, in that he required no discernible cognitive apprenticeship. With a Pulitzer already to his name, he released in 1949 what almost every thirty-two-year-old writer dreams of producing: a book that, whether or not it becomes a commercial smash, lastingly changes political debate. In The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, Schlesinger hailed Truman as the legitimate heir of FDR, while rejecting obvious Soviet groupies of the Harry Hopkins kind. The Vital Center extended the comfort of an intellectual pedigree to battle-scarred New Deal veterans ever more on the defensive against not just Strom Thurmond but Joe McCarthy and Robert Taft. The sleight-of-hand involved in thus minimizing FDR’s own Sovietophilia was hardly unique to, or even a conscious act by, Schlesinger. When Schlesinger and the New Yorker’s Richard Rovere co-wrote within three months The General and the President—a defense of Truman’s 1951 decision to fire MacArthur from Korean War command—Schlesinger prudently sent a copy to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The president relished it, and told Schlesinger so:

Dear Doctor Schlesinger…I think you analyzed the situation just as it is and I certainly appreciate your kindness in sending me a copy of the book. 

A man who has received compliments on White House letterhead before turning thirty-five can hardly reconcile himself to mundane notions of academic prestige. Proto-Schlesinger, scholar, therefore metamorphosed by degrees into deutero-Schlesinger, activist. At first, Adlai Stevenson—witty, self-deprecating, at ease with professors—seemed the likeliest nationally celebrated politician to meet Schlesinger’s criteria for a philosopher-prince. The sole trouble with Stevenson as presidential timber was that (as Chicago columnist Mike Royko cruelly observed) he kept losing. Hence the inevitable gulf between Schlesinger and the “Madly for Adlai” faithful; hence the fatal Kennedy embrace.

Malcolm Muggeridge, who in 1966 would call deutero-Schlesinger “a slobbering apologist for the late President; an undiscriminating adulator of the whole turnout, Bobby and Teddy and all, down to the very Hyannis Port dogs,” credited proto-Schlesinger with “luminous and critical intelligence.” (A surprisingly early demolition job on Camelot appeared under Muggeridge’s byline in the New York Review of Books’s January 28, 1965 edition.) To a sharp mind, Schlesinger took the sensible precaution of adding sharp dress. He justified his most famed sartorial quirk with the unanswerable assurance: “It is impossible, or at least it requires extreme agility, to spill anything on a bowtie.”

All the rewards that comparative propinquity can give, Schlesinger obtained. He had two advantages over most other Camelot courtiers: amiability of temperament, and the knowledge that with his sheer erudition he could get a non-Camelot job if need be. But it is newly remarkable to observe from the Letters how little JFK (unlike Jackie) ever confided in Schlesinger. Writing to Stevenson, who had discreetly queried as to how uxorious “that kid” was, Schlesinger insisted—and doubtless fully believed—that tales of JFK’s extramarital feats were “greatly exaggerated….The stories about his private life seem to date from 1955 and before. I have heard no reliable account of any such incident in recent years.”

As early as November 1959, Schlesinger had harangued “Dear Jack” with a scarcely believable opening sentence that its recipient must have found impossible to forget or condone:

I hope I am wrong, but everything I have heard this weekend confirms my feeling that your recent dialogue with The New York Times concerning birth control may turn out to be a very bad break.

This salvo was fired at a man who, in Nancy Mitford’s memorable verdict, did “for sex what Eisenhower did for golf.” It helps explain Schlesinger’s post-1961 confinement to the White House’s East Wing, where (as the Letters’ editors—two of Schlesinger’s sons—note) “His portfolio would include speechwriting, Latin American and European affairs, cultural affairs, and liaison work with the liberal community.” Bird, meet gilded cage. 

Less decent men than Schlesinger would have resented their enforced distance from the testosterone-fueled main event. Then again, less decent men than Schlesinger would never have sent to Jackie the condoling epistle—quiet, compassionate, and a mere two short paragraphs in length—that Schlesinger did compose before midnight on November 22, 1963, which runs in part:  

Dearest Jackie, the love and grief of a nation may do something to suggest the feeling of terrible vacancy and despair we all feel. Marian and my weeping children join me in sending you our profoundest love and sympathy.

He took on several causes that an Artful Dodger would have left alone. When William Styron’s 1967 Confessions of Nat Turner—a mixed portrayal of Turner’s failed slave revolt, written by a white man—prompted Orwellian hate sessions from black intellectuals, Schlesinger’s missive to Styron displayed dignity and clairvoyance: 

I thank you for sending me a copy of that sad little book. They so desperately miss the point of everything you were trying to do….The vulgarity of prose and argument in this book ensures that it will defeat its own purpose.

Meanwhile, when writing to William F. Buckley in 1970, Schlesinger seems to have been more inclined to needle than to denounce his antagonist:

Could it be that you are getting a little tetchy in your declining years?…Is it really lèse-majesté to suggest that I am under no obligation to promote your program? As for others, let them make their own decision. Don’t tell me that you have stopped believing in freedom of individual choice! You remind me of my other favorite correspondent, Noam Chomsky. Best regards.

Before that came the Tet Offensive and Sirhan Sirhan. Hubert Humphrey, stung by Schlesinger’s refusal to give his presidential hopes an unambiguous endorsement, failed to realize how Kennedycentric the latter’s world-view remained. As a despondent Schlesinger wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr, who himself had lost most of his previous political sway:  

The murder of Robert Kennedy terminated my interest in the campaign, and perhaps in American politics for some time to come. Hubert seems to me a burnt-out case, emasculated and destroyed by L.B.J. and unlikely ever to become a man again.

Just as Schlesinger never predicted Humphrey’s sudden, labor union-backed resurgence during the 1968 campaign’s last weeks—which drained votes from George Wallace and almost vanquished Nixon—so he never anticipated the sheer size of George McGovern’s defeat. “With all McGovern’s troubles, the party is in a much better situation than it was after Chicago four years ago.” This Schlesinger conclusion comes in a note to Stevenson’s former mistress Marietta Peabody Tree. Said note followed McGovern’s dumping of Thomas Eagleton from the Democratic ticket, by which McGovern managed to antagonize yet another voting bloc: former psych-ward patients. 

Clearly, we have here an advanced instance of Pauline Kael Syndrome (yes, Miss Kael really did complain “I only know one person who voted for Nixon,” as confirmed by a New York Times report). In 1973, Schlesinger popularized the pejorative phrase “Imperial Presidency,” although he had acquiesced to such a presidency on JFK’s watch, finding it objectionable chiefly when Nixon embarked on it. During 1980, Schlesinger—like Carter and almost everyone else—miscalculated Reagan’s staying power, televisual gifts, and ability to gain literate followers. Lukewarm about a second Carter term, Schlesinger championed first Teddy (in one last surge of Camelot triumphalism) and then the Illinois third-party candidate John B. Anderson, whose loyalists sliced chunks off Carter’s base while leaving Reagan’s largely unscathed.

Twelve years after Carter’s downfall we find Schlesinger telling “Dear Bill” Clinton:

Bush is a man of a now discredited past. Perot is the Wizard of Oz. (I hope that Toto will pull back the curtain well before November.) You are the man of vision with the professional skills to define the tasks of national renovation and to get the country moving again.

He developed a tendresse for even Hillary, assuring Tina Brown at the New Yorker—the editor likened by at least one contributor to “Stalin in high heels”—that “I found myself seated next to Mrs. Clinton. I had a splendid time.” To some degree he reinvented himself in 1991, with his bestseller The Disuniting of America, as a sagacious opponent of multi-culti death wishes, whether pedagogic or narrowly administrative. Of course, his own entirely sensible suggestions for curbing these death wishes were ones that his publishers would have hurled into the wastepaper basket if propounded by a Nixon—let alone a Wallace, a Goldwater, or a Jesse Helms—during the Great Society’s saturnalia.

Altogether Schlesinger emerges as a much more likable man than readers could expect from anyone so close to General Headquarters. For appreciating the contrast, one need only compare him, in his boyish enthusiasms, with liverish supernannies of the Woodrow Wilson type. To search in Schlesinger’s letters for boorishness is to search in vain. Many an American public intellectual, if given half a chance in Soviet Russia, would have not merely embraced the prevalent politics but imitated the ad hominem frenzies of spoiled brats like Commissar Alexander Fadeyev (“If monkeys could type, they would produce poems like T.S. Eliot’s”). Not totalitarianism alone inspired such sewer-mouthedness. A mere twenty years ago, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans—possessed of brains, a work ethic, and education—grew so incensed, in Kuala Lumpur, at the delays in agreement on a communiqué’s wording that he screamed, “Jesus Christ, we’re not drafting the f---ing Koran.” (Evans’s nauseated Malaysian counterpart contented himself with silently dragging a finger across his own windpipe.) Schlesinger would no more have talked like that than have planted a bomb. 

It is easy, and often justifiable, to keep on mocking the court-jester aspect of Schlesinger’s Thousand Days. (How merciless was Spy magazine’s treatment of that aspect in its unforgettable 1991 comic strip “Kennedy Babies”!) But to examine Schlesinger’s letters in bulk is to be forced into the revisionist conclusion that Camelot was not much more central to Schlesinger’s ultimate importance than the Duke of Wellington at 10 Downing Street was to the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. Over six decades, Schlesinger expressed himself through brisk, lucid but well-groomed English (the overpraised Edmund Wilson was tone-deaf by comparison); had an intellectual curiosity that Tony Blair’s or David Cameron’s tame authorial prostitutes could not begin to imagine; energized lots of people into buying several intelligently conceived books of his; and stimulated inquiry into pre-Civil-War scholarship among people who, in his absence, would have drowned talk of that whole topic by their ostentatious yawns. He could with entire legitimacy have echoed Othello: “I have done the state some service, and they know it. No more of that.” In moral terms, echoing Othello beats the hell out of echoing Iago. 

Having endured Parkinson’s Disease without a hint of whining, the eighty-nine-year-old Schlesinger breathed his last in February 2007, five weeks after his friend Art Buchwald, who from his own deathbed announced with irrepressible brio, “Dying isn’t hard. Getting paid by Medicare is.” At his best, the protagonist of this book was a decent man who, while perhaps not climbing to ethical heights, avoided their depths. A great thinker? Maybe not. But, as the Letters confirm, much more than just a great bow tie.

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About the Author

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, 2012).