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A Worthy Adversary

Thursday, February 1, 2001

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950.
Houghton Mifflin.
556 pages. $28.95

In 1991, political correctness was at its height, the nation’s top universities were instituting speech codes, and multiculturalists were trying to purge campus reading lists of DWEMs — dead white European males. As the debate raged on, Jesse Jackson, a two-time contender for the Democratic party presidential nomination, weighed in strongly on the side of the multiculturalists, leading groups of protesting Stanford students in chants of "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go." At the same time, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published The Disuniting of America, a defense of Western civilization and an attack on mindless multiculturalism. The contrast could not have been starker. Schlesinger, the high priest of an earlier era of liberalism, and Jackson, the high priest of liberalism’s current incarnation, clearly stood on very different sides of a cultural divide.

This was not the first time that Schlesinger broke from his fellow liberals. In addition to his defense of the classics and of objective standards, Schlesinger had been a staunch anti-communist throughout his career. Unlike many of his colleagues on the left, and unlike even many of his neoconservative critics who had earlier drifted away from youthful Marxist dalliances, Schlesinger always rejected communism and took a hard line on many Cold War issues.

Of course, none of this should suggest that Schlesinger is a conservative, or even a neoconservative drifting rightward with age. His writings reveal that Schlesinger is, and always was, an unflinching Democratic partisan. Yet despite his disdain for what he calls conservatism, there is readily discernible in Schlesinger (gasp) an unmistakable conservative temperament.

In addition to that temperament, reading Schlesinger also reveals as well a witty, learned man, with a good sense of humor and a willingness to make friends on both sides of the political aisle — all three sides if you count the Marxists. Schlesinger does not reject Western civilization, as so many of his leftist colleagues do, but he sees his brand of liberalism as the apotheosis of Western political development. Schlesinger’s anti-communism, anti-multiculturalism, and good old-fashioned American nationalism have earned him often bitter critiques from the left, but Schlesinger, to his credit, has held his ground, convinced that History, his constant ally, is on his side.

Schlesinger’s recent autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950 — his first book in almost 10 years — confirms this view. The mere fact that he felt the first 33 years of his life worthy of a 556-page memoir demonstrates either hubris or a life truly worth living. Fortunately, Schlesinger’s book covers a fascinating interval, in which he wrote three books, met everyone worth meeting, and provided a lively commentary detailing this eventful period. As Schlesinger modestly put it, "I have lived through interesting times and had the luck of knowing some interesting people."

Schlesinger was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1917, the son of historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. Schlesinger pere was a disciple of Charles Beard, the author of an Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) and the father of the Progressive school. The theories of historians like Schlesinger Sr. and Beard helped reshape the study of American history, paving the road for social history and the study of races and gender within history. Despite the apparent similarities, social history differs from the kind of racial and gender history we see on campuses today. As Schlesinger describes the difference between the two approaches, "my father and his generation saw multiculturalism as a stage in the absorption of newcomers into an American nationality and culture that they remolded as they entered." In the 1990s, in contrast, "Ideologues saw ethnicity as the defining experience for Americans. Multiculturalism in this militant version rejected the concept of a common culture and of a single American nationality." Although both generations of Schlesingers rejected the latter approach, Schlesinger Sr.’s theories helped pave the path for today’s versions of gender and racial history. Schlesinger had historians’ genes on both sides of his family. His maternal grandfather was George Bancroft, "America’s first major historian." With this impressive birthright, Schlesinger gravitated towards history at an early age, keeping a journal and reading voraciously. His wide reading is one of his most admirable characteristics. Schlesinger devoured the classics in his youth, and he spends dozens of pages detailing his reading. One particularly amusing memory skewers the Robinson family of Switzerland: "I remember liking Swiss Family Robinson as a child. But when I later read Johann Wyss’s rip-off of Crusoe to my own children, the Robinson family seemed to me a pack of bloodthirsty Calvinists who spent an inordinate time (a) in praying and (b) in massacring inoffensive animals." One of Schlesinger’s most sobering, yet trenchant, observations is that most people have read the bulk of books that they will read by the age of 25.

Another of Schlesinger’s admirable characteristics is his love of country. Schlesinger’s patriotism, which has been instrumental in his opposition to both communism and multiculturalism, developed out of the Schlesinger family’s immigrant roots. When Schlesinger Sr. complained that other children mocked his own father’s foreign accent, his father replied: "You tell them, son, that their parents had no choice about coming but I came because I wanted to — because I thought the United States the best country on earth." As a result of this, Arthur Jr. noted, "My father thereafter began to think of immigrants not as a chosen people but as a choosing people."

In addition to a profession, patriotism, and politics, Schlesinger Sr. also passed on his personal relationships to his son. From an early age, when the senior Schlesinger introduced his son to H.L. Mencken, to Schlesinger’s appointment as a colleague of his father’s at Harvard, Schlesinger’s career consistently benefited from his father’s reputation and connections. When the Schlesinger family fretted about the quality of education their son was receiving from his public school, Schlesinger Sr.’s connections saved the day: After young Schlesinger’s "civics teacher had informed the class that the inhabitants of Albania were called Albinos and had white hair and pink eyes," Schlesinger Sr. "forthwith called his friend Corning Benton, the treasurer for Phillips Exeter Academy, and entered me as an upper middler for the autumn of 1931."

After Exeter, and a trip around the world, Schlesinger went to Harvard, where he began to establish his own relationships with the key players of the political establishment. He also undertook as his senior thesis a study of the nineteenth century Transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, which became his first published book.

After Harvard, he served as a Henry Fellow at Cambridge, and then as a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, meeting even more future celebrities along the way. World War II interceded, but it did not interrupt Schlesinger’s journey through the future stars of postwar America. While serving in the Office of War Information and later in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the cia, Schlesinger met Bill Casey, Wild Bill Donovan, John Kenneth Galbraith, Stewart Alsop, Walt Rostow, Leon Edel, and George Ball. Before Schlesinger’s return from Europe, his publisher released his second book, The Age of Jackson. The book, which portrayed Andrew Jackson as a proto-New Deal Democrat, sold 90,000 copies, won the Pulitzer Prize, and transformed Schlesinger from young man on the make to made man.

Schlesinger moved to Washington and joined the salons of the Georgetown elite, especially Washington Post publisher Phil Graham and columnist Joe Alsop. He wrote freelance articles for Fortune, Life, and the Atlantic, and helped found the liberal anti-communist group Americans for Democratic Action. After a year of freelancing, Schlesinger returned to Harvard as a professor, but maintained his close ties to Washington. In 1948, he wrote the Vital Center, which urged a nationwide anti-communist effort, a common rallying cry among both right and left. The Vital Center summarized the liberal anti-communist position that dominated American intellectual life in the 1950s.

If course, while his first 33 years are as interesting as anyone’s have a right to be, the most eventful years of his life took place after Schlesinger’s first volume comes to a close. In 1952 and 1956, Schlesinger served as speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson’s presidential runs. Although Stevenson lost both races, the senator nevertheless helped shape future campaigns and presidential administrations by bringing teams of prominent intellectuals into his campaign. Stevenson recognized that in postwar America, the increasingly educated middle class provided a market for the writings of intellectuals, who in turn gained increasing sway over their new readers. After the Stevenson campaign, all subsequent presidential candidates hired or consulted with intellectuals in the course of their campaigns and administrations.

Schlesinger, of course, benefited from this development, serving, in his best-known job, as resident intellectual in the Kennedy White House. Despite the conventional view of Schlesinger’s job as a top aide to Kennedy, his contemporaries had a different view. As Kennedy aides Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers reported in Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1970), that Schlesinger was "special assistant without a special portfolio, to be a liaison man in charge of keeping Adlai Stevenson happy, to receive complaints from the liberals, and to act as a sort of household devil’s advocate who would complain about anything in the administration that bothered him." Robert Kennedy, as quoted in Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years (1988), edited by Edwin O. Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman, recalled that his older brother "liked Arthur Schlesinger, but he thought he was a little bit of a nut sometimes. He thought he was sort of a gadfly and that he was having a helluva good time in Washington. He didn’t do a helluva lot, but he was good to have around."

RFK’s assessment was correct; Schlesinger had a helluva good time in his three years at the White House, where he wrote articles and film reviews, corresponded with the nation’s intellectual and cultural elites, advised Kennedy on literary and some political matters, and accumulated the research for his Pulitzer prize-winning book on the Kennedy administration, A Thousand Days. In short, his job at the White House paid him $20,000 to be — Arthur Schlesinger Jr. For Kennedy, this was a bargain. Schlesinger, with his high standing in the intellectual community, helped Kennedy become president, gain good reviews as president, and become even more popular in the years following Kennedy’s tragic assassination.

After the White House, Schlesinger continued to write, teach, and be politically active. He eventually left Harvard for the Graduate Center at City College in New York. And now, at 83, he has started publishing his own autobiography. Looking back over Schlesinger’s career, one sees both pros and cons. On the pro side, already discussed, are his sense of humor, his intellect, his erudition, and his patriotism. On the liability side, there is that one nagging trait — his absolute inability to give conservatives or conservatism a fair shake. As with so many parts of his life, Schlesinger’s definition of conservatism came from his dad. In New Viewpoints on American History, Schlesinger Sr. wrote, "The thinking conservative finds his chief allies in the self-complacency of comfortable mediocrity, in the apathy and stupidity of the toil-worn multitudes, and in the aggressive self-interest of the privileged classes." Schlesinger Jr. had a similarly dismissive view of conservatism, describing liberalism’s two biggest competitors as follows: "Conservatism, rule by the business community; and socialism, rule by ideological planners."

This misapprehension of conservatism leads Schlesinger to exhibit poor judgment at times, particularly with respect to conservatives as individuals. In describing his classmates at Harvard, Schlesinger recalls "Caspar Weinberger, who later served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense (and as hopelessly imperious a conservative in Harvard College as he was half a century later in the Pentagon)." Schlesinger never mentions Weinberger again, and the comment seems more a gratuitous shot at a future Republican Cabinet secretary than an accurate snapshot of Weinberger as a college student. Fortunately, Schlesinger elsewhere mentions a willingness to forge friendships, albeit grudging ones, across the ideological divide, with individuals like William F. Buckley Jr.

More problematic is Schlesinger’s political analysis, which suffers from heavy, if not immovable, ideological blinders. Schlesinger’s famous "cycles" theory — that American history moves in 20-year waves between progressivism and reaction — is often forced. After the 1992 election, Schlesinger resurrected the theory, claiming that Clinton’s victory foreshadowed the start of a new liberal era. Two years later, when the gop captured Congress for the first time in over four decades, the Wall Street Journal reprinted Schlesinger’s prediction, tweaking the historian for imposing ideology on his powers of analysis. And so with the Kennedys, where Schlesinger’s understandable closeness to the family prevents him from engaging in any kind of objective analysis. Hence his hagiographic treatment of both jfk and rfk.

Even taking into account his devotion to all things Kennedy, Schlesinger’s assets still outweigh his liabilities. He might not return the favor to conservatives, but Schlesinger belongs in the camp of worthy adversaries. He has served the cause of liberalism well and has consistently valued attributes — humor, erudition, and patriotism — that are equally valued on the right, yet too often absent among his nominal allies on the left. The first volume of his autobiography reveals a temperamental comrade for conservatives if not a political one, and there’s ample reason to look forward to subsequent volumes.