The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
November 14, 2007

Arthur Schlesinger was a liberal mugged by reality - but unlike other mugged liberals he was still hoping to find a new FDR over the horizon, argues William D. Rubinstein: Journals 1952-2000 - Arthur M. Schlesinger

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Journals 1952-2000
by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr
New York: Penguin Books, 2007
Hardback, $40

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who was born in 1917 and died this May, was arguably the most famous living American historian, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson (1946) while still in his twenties, and the author of many other works. He was even better known, perhaps, as an advisor, speech-writer, and confidante to John and later Robert Kennedy and to other Democratic Party politicians.

Schlesinger kept a journal for many decades. About one-sixth of it has been edited and published, in a work still 892 pages long, by two of his sons. With his previously published autobiography A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950 (2000), they comprise a fascinating and valuable account of a liberal scholar close to the heart of America's liberal Democratic administrations and politicians for many decades. One is continuously struck by the excellence of Schlesinger's writing style and the continuous intelligence and honesty of his narration.

Something should first be said about his background. His father, Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., was a very distinguished American historian who also spent most of his career at Harvard. The senior Schlesinger was of mixed German Jewish and German Catholic descent; his wife was a Bancroft, from the New England Mayflower aristocracy, and apparently a relative of George Bancroft, the first great American historian. The family were Unitarians. Schlesinger was educated at an upper class private boarding school and then, two years younger than most students, at Harvard. He was prodigiously well-read, but, unlike many erudite prodigies, never lost the common touch.

Throughout his long life, Schlesinger was always a political liberal in the American sense, and it was this lifelong and continuing political commitment which defined his entire public career. He came of age under Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom, in effect, he was still voting until he died, seventy years after Roosevelt's New Deal.

Indeed, the entire remainder of Schlesinger's political life essentially consisted of seeking a successor to FDR, normally without undue success. His first postwar hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party's Presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956. Few now realize the extent to which Stevenson, an unusually brilliant and articulate politician, a kind of American Hugh Gaitskell, was the real hero to most American liberals of Schlesinger's generation, not John F. Kennedy or any other liberal leader. Schlesinger became a leading speechwriter for Stevenson.

From the late 1950s he became close to John F. Kennedy, who was exactly the same age as Schlesinger and also a Harvard graduate, an intellectual, and an historian who also won the Pulitzer Prize in History for Profiles in Courage.

Like most American liberals, and this will seem very strange today, Schlesinger was at first deeply suspicious of JFK, whose background - from a very wealthy, conservative Catholic family, a man whose father had been widely seen as a near-fascist and a criminal; pro-Joe McCarthy during the 1950s; seemingly a political lightweight and an opportunist during his time in the Senate - seemed tailor-made to arouse unease among liberal intellectuals. But Schlesinger came to admire and respect Kennedy's cool intelligence and his liberalism. He became Kennedy's close confidante and speechwriter, and later wrote one of the best accounts of the Kennedy era, A Thousand Days.

After the assassination, Schlesinger found it impossible to work with President Lyndon Johnson, whom he increasingly regarded as a crude, possibly paranoid megalomaniac. He broke with Johnson over the Vietnam War, and then devoted all of his energies to helping Robert Kennedy become President. After his assassination, Schlesinger's life consisted of Waiting for Godot, of seeking to find yet another new White Knight of American liberalism. Rather pathetically, in his Journals he reports hopefully on every successive leading Democratic Presidential candidate down to Al Gore, always expecting great things but always finding only their deficiencies.

If FDR and JFK were Schlesinger's primary heroes, there is also no doubt as to who, well beyond even Lyndon Johnson, is the villain of the story - Richard Nixon. It is difficult to exaggerate Schlesinger's loathing and contempt for Nixon, a view he also held in common with most liberals of his generation.

In his retirement, he found that Nixon became his next door neighbour in brownstones on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But the two never met and, unlike many others, he never discerned a "New Nixon" after 1968.

Schlesinger knew virtually everyone who mattered, not only in politics, but in the cultural and academic world, both in American and internationally, and his Journals may well strike many as something of an exercise in name-dropping. To reach this conclusion, however, would be to overlook his integrity, as well as the intelligence of his observations.

Two central points perhaps emerge from Schlesinger's works. First, and although he would deny this, it seems absolutely clear that he moved very considerably to the right during the course of his life. In his last decades - often sharing the positions of the Neo-Conservatives - he made many criticisms of the recent left, denouncing multiculturalism, political correctness, overt sexuality in movies, and the "culture of complaint"; he had also always, to his credit, been an outspoken anti-Communist.

But, unlike so many other "mugged liberals", he never explicitly abandoned the left (in the American sense), always hoping against hope to see FDR's reincarnation, even several generations after the conditions which produced the New Deal had plainly vanished. Schlesinger was certainly a clever man, but perhaps not a wise one. Secondly, it is very striking that there is - so far as I am aware - no British Arthur Schlesinger, a leading historian-intellectual close to the Prime Minister, but not actively engaged as an elected politician. (Roy Jenkins would come into the latter class.)

Most recent Prime Ministers have had court intellectuals, most obviously Margaret Thatcher's entourage of Monetarist thinkers, but there is, arguably, no British parallel to the relationship between Schlesinger on one hand and Adlai Stevenson and the two Kennedys on the other.

Most people would, I think, assume in advance that the relationship between the head of government and leading intellectuals would be the opposite way around on either side of the Atlantic, with Britain favouring the deep thinkers. But it has been America which has produced Schlesinger and, perhaps even more strikingly, Henry Kissinger (whose rivalry and friendship is examined at length in Schlesinger's Journals.)

Should politicians keep intellectuals at arms' length, or should they court them and use them? Most readers of this site would probably agree with William F. Buckley's well-known observation that he would rather be governed by twenty persons chosen at random from the Boston, Massachusetts phone book than by twenty Harvard professors. Schlesinger's great merits, and, perhaps, his disappointments and failings, provide evidence for either view.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

What an excellent piece!
But is it really fair to compare a real intellectual like Adlai Stevenson who had an analytical brain with a fake like Kennedy who merely knew how to talk the language of the liberals, to move their verbal counters around in an adroit way but no more? No wonder he got on with the shallow journalist J K Galbraith. Kennedy was in this respect America's David Cameron whereas Stevenson can be compared with Roy Jenkins. Jenkins unlike Kennedy wrote his own books.
Stevenson was the last of the bald intellectual Presidential candidates who is credited with saying "Eggheads of the world unite, you've only your yolks to lose".
Kennedy never said anything so good despite his army of script-writers. His speechs were a mess of rhetorical cliches - again just like Cameron.

Posted by: Christie Davies at November 14, 2007 05:25 PM

Many thanks for the kind remarks. I agree about Adlai Stevenson, but JFK was occasionally able to make clever retorts. As President, he was once introduced to Arthur Calwell, the leader of the Labor opposition in Australia, who noted to Kennedy that his, Calwell's, ancestors had been Americans who left for Australia during the 1851 Gold Rush,
"Just about the same time that your ancestors came from Ireland." "Not cause and effect, I hope," Kennedy replied- at least I thought that was clever. Incidebtally, Schlesinger makes no mention whatever of Kennedy's affairs, and seems to have known nothing about them, unless his Journals have been censored.

Posted by: Bill Rubinstein at November 15, 2007 09:12 AM

" [JFK was] an historian who also won the Pulitzer Prize in History for Profiles in Courage." You're teasing. I had thought that it was near-universally accepted that Schlesinger wrote it. Which would make him guilty of conspiracy to defraud.

Posted by: dearieme at November 15, 2007 08:02 PM

Schlesinger was widely supposed to have ghostwritten Profiles in Courage, but almost certainly did not do so. In his Journals, he notes that Theodofre Sorensen was supposed to have ghostwritten it- he makes no mention of his own role- but that Sorensen strenuously denied this and Schlesinger actually saw Kennedy's handwritten draft of the book. I had lunch with Schlesinger in 1996- he devotes a page to the meeting, to my astonsihment- and was sorely tempted to ask him about Profiles in Courage, but decided not to, as I wanted him to give a dustjacket endorsement to a book I was then writing, The Myth of Rescue (which he did). Whether Schlesinger was being disingenuous in his Journals about Profiles in Courage I don't know, but assume that the Journals were not at the time meant to be published. Bill Rubinstein

Posted by: Bill Rubinstein at November 20, 2007 08:46 AM

Wow. What a lot of Kennedy-hatred here.

Kennedy, like almost every politician then or now, did not write his own books -- at least not without a lot of help. Nor did he write, singlehandedly, his own speeches. But in both cases, the major ideas and often the best lines were his.

Schlesinger had absolutely nothing to do with Profiles in Courage, since he had virtually no connection with the Kennedy camp until the 1960 campaign, and Profiles was written in 1956, when Schlesinger was a central member of the Stevenson camp and Adlai's top speechwriter. (Funny how the first commenter here does not denigrate Adlai for not writing his own speeches.)

Beyond that, Kennedy was one of the wittiest men in public life of the 20th century, on this side of the Atlantic or any other. A cursory glance at his press conferences ( will confirm his wit to any but the most die-hard Kennedy-hater.

JFK clearly had some moral and psycho-social-sexual problems. But to say he was somehow intellectually not up to snuff is just churlish. No American president since has approached matching his intelligence; Nixon might have come close but for his crippling paranoia. (Would Nixon have been able to intellectually navigate his way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or would he have simply okayed the Joint Chiefs' invasion recommendation? The answer is self-evident.)

By the way, Adlai had many better quotes than the one you cite. He was a wit, but many of his bons mots were second-hand, such as "I have a deal for the Republicans. If they stop telling lies about us, we will stop telling the truth about them" and "I feel like the little boy who stubbed his toe -- I'm too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh" were old Illinois political quotes (the latter from Lincoln). But I think his best was "In America, anyone can become president. That's just the risk you take."

Posted by: Patrick at August 18, 2008 09:25 PM

Hello: I just learned that I am a distant relative of Arthur Calwell (through the Swisher side of the family). We indeed split when he left the USA for Australia in the 1850's.

How can I find out more information about the Calwell-JFK meeting in 1961?


Clayton E. Swisher

Posted by: Clayton Swisher at May 30, 2009 10:02 AM

How is it possible to be regarded a noted historian working in the White House and not be the least bit aware of Kennedy's multiple affairs--Fiddle and Faddle, Judith Cambell Exner (Sam Gianconna's girlfriend) and perhaps most notewothy Mary Pinchot Meyer. The history of Kennedy and Meyer will make your hair stand on end. Miss that and you should forfeit your credential. In addition to changing his middle name Schlesinger could also change his last name to SchLESSinger.

Posted by: Robert Holmgren at June 12, 2013 05:48 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement