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Friday, 02 March 2007 16:47

Author Shaped Lens for Viewing U.S. History

Arthur Schlesinger obituary, with additional remarks.


By Adam Bernstein

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, March 2, 2007


Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., 89, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who wrote about the evolution of the American democratic tradition, served in the Kennedy White House as a "court philosopher" and was among the foremost public intellectuals of his era, died Feb. 28 at New York Downtown Hospital after a heart attack.

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Schlesinger in the 1960s

Schlesinger rose to prominence at 28 when his book "The Age of Jackson," about the democratization of U.S. politics under President Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century, won the 1946 Pulitzer for history. Twenty years later, his book "A Thousand Days," an account of his role as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, won the Pulitzer in the category of biography or autobiography.

In the 1950s, Schlesinger also wrote three volumes about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, the Depression-era political and economic doctrine. Published as "The Age of Roosevelt," the books were considered valuable accounts of a tumultuous period.

Sean Wilentz, a history professor and former director of American studies at Princeton University, said of Schlesinger: "He was certainly one of the outstanding American historians of his generation. He set the terms for understanding not just one or two but three eras of American history -- Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. It's enough for most historians to write one book and get recognition for it."

Schlesinger wrote or edited more than 25 books, most recently "War and the American Presidency," published in 2004, which called President Bush's approach to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks "a ghastly mess."

In addition to his best-selling books, Schlesinger was known for essays and articles he contributed to an array of magazines. While serving under Kennedy, he wrote movie and book reviews for the Saturday Review. With his horn-rimmed glasses and perpetual bow tie, he seemed to cultivate a near-caricature of the reserved Harvard University professor he once was, yet he thrived on the gossipy salon circuits of Washington, New York and Boston. He developed close relationships with newspaper publishers such as the Graham family in Washington, writers such as Truman Capote and, of course, the Kennedys.

"It was hard to resist the raffish, unpredictable, sometimes uncontrollable Kennedy parties," Schlesinger once wrote.

Noticeably absent in his books on the Kennedy clan was a tone of critical and dispassionate historical perspective. Author Gore Vidal called "A Thousand Days" a "political novel."

Nevertheless, in the earliest books that shaped his reputation, Schlesinger was revered for his engaging and interpretive approach to history. Most intriguingly, Wilentz said, Schlesinger saw Jackson as a man more shaped by East Coast intellectuals and the new labor movement than was previously thought and saw the New Deal not as a fixed set of principles but an evolving experiment.

Schlesinger's 1978 book "Robert Kennedy and His Times," which won the National Book Award, also provided one of his more enduring personal analyses of John and Robert Kennedy. "John Kennedy was a realist brilliantly disguised as a romantic," he wrote. "Robert Kennedy, a romantic stubbornly disguised as a realist."

Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger was born Oct. 15, 1917, in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Iowa City and Cambridge, Mass. He later changed his middle name to Meier and added the suffix "Jr." to honor his father, a prominent historian at Harvard.

Although it was never officially confirmed, Schlesinger said that his mother's side of the family included the 19th-century historian and diplomat George Bancroft, often regarded as the father of American history. Starting in 1834, Bancroft wrote the 10-volume "History of the United States" and also served as secretary of the Navy.

Schlesinger graduated from the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and traveled with his family around the world before enrolling at Harvard at 16. He graduated summa cum laude in 1938 and briefly considered a career as a theater critic before his father swayed him to write a book based on his senior thesis. That work, "Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress," about a 19th-century author and cleric, received positive reviews.

After a year studying at Cambridge University, Schlesinger received a Harvard fellowship that allowed him to research "The Age of Jackson." Published in 1945, the book sold 90,000 copies in its first year, won the Pulitzer and established him as a force among a post-war generation of scholars.

Alan Brinkley, provost of Columbia University and a history professor, said the Jackson book "changed the way people viewed American history generally, because it was a rebuttal of the frontier thesis that [Pulitzer-winning historian] Frederick Jackson Turner made so central to historic interpretation in the 1920s and 1930s. Schlesinger argued that it was not the frontier that created Jackson's democratic ethos; it was cities, workers." Furthermore, the book's focus on the formative decades and spirit of U.S. democracy caught on with the public after World War II.

Schlesinger, who had poor eyesight, spent the war years as a writer in the Office of War Information and the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA. He joined Harvard's faculty in 1946 as an associate history professor -- a rare accomplishment for someone so young and without an advanced degree.

In 1947, he helped start Americans for Democratic Action, a political group made up of a range of New Deal liberals, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, labor lawyer Joseph Rauh, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and future vice president Hubert H. Humphrey. The organizers wanted to counter the influence of the Progressive Party of Henry Wallace, which they saw as Communist-dominated.

Out of the ADA movement came Schlesinger's 1949 book "The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom." It was credited with providing an ideological basis for practical liberalism during the early years of the Cold War and a philosophical alternative to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and U.S. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, the red-baiting Wisconsin Republican.

Schlesinger wrote in the book: "Problems will always torment us, because all important problems are insoluble: that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution."

Schlesinger became a full professor at Harvard in 1954. He took consulting jobs for government agencies and ventured into back-room political work. In 1952, he urged W. Averell Harriman to give up his challenge to Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson for the Democratic presidential nomination. He advised Stevenson's unsuccessful campaigns in 1952 and 1956 and said he was frustrated by the candidate's cerebral approach to politics at the expense of a more assertive voice that he thought would capture the public's imagination.

Schlesinger said that even if Stevenson were not the most compelling candidate, he "made Kennedy's rise possible." He added: "His lofty conception of politics, his conviction that affluence was not enough for the good life, his impatience with liberal cliches, his contempt for conservative complacency, his summons to the young, his demand for new ideas, his respect for people who had them, his belief that history afforded no easy answers, his call for a strong public leadership, all this set the tone for a new era of Democratic politics."

During the 1960 presidential election, Schlesinger became a Kennedy partisan and wrote "Kennedy or Nixon: Does it Make Any Difference?," which threw into sharp relief what he thought was the idealism Kennedy offered and the materialism of the Republican candidate, then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

Starting in 1961, he took a two-year leave from Harvard to work for the Kennedy White House. As special assistant to Kennedy, he was close to the center of power but had a debatable degree of influence.

Although Schlesinger was often described as a general "court philosopher," Kennedy aides Kenneth P. O'Donnell and David F. Powers wrote in their 1970 book, "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye," 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."

At one time, Schlesinger wrote a memorandum cautioning against what became the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. When it was clear that the invasion was imminent, he wrote another memo advising the president to let blame fall on his subordinates.

Kennedy ignored the advice and publicly took "full responsibility" for the failure, and Schlesinger was criticized for telling the media at the time of the invasion that there were 300 to 400 men in the landing force, although the accurate figure was 1,400. He later told Time magazine, "I was lying," but he said he had no choice if he wanted to stay with the White House. "Either you get out, or you play the game."

After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Schlesinger transformed his notebooks into "A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House," which also won the National Book Award. Largely seen as a flattering account of the president, the book aroused controversy for its depiction of tensions between the president and then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Schlesinger briefly stayed on under President Lyndon B. Johnson but felt shunted aside. In 1966, he became the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at City University of New York, a position he held for almost 30 years.

Meanwhile, he wrote a book criticizing Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War, "The Bitter Heritage" (1966), which faulted the war's advocates for "seeing the civil war in Vietnam as above all a moral issue."

Living in Manhattan, Schlesinger became active in then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's (D-N.Y.) bid for the presidency in 1968. After the candidate was killed that June, Schlesinger gave an angry commencement address at CUNY, underscoring the "hatred and violence" he saw around him. Among his later books were "The Imperial Presidency" (1973), which placed allegations of Nixon's abuse of power in conducting foreign affairs in the context of post-World War II attempts to expand presidential authority.

"The Disuniting of America," his 1991 bestseller that condemned the rise of "political correctness" as well as ethnic history movements such as Afrocentrism, won him strong reviews in the mainstream media. However, a range of black scholars, including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Leonard Jeffries, used highly personal terms to denounce his work.

Schlesinger dismissed much of the attacks. "What the hell," he told The Washington Post. "You have to call them as you see them. This too shall pass."

The first volume of his memoirs, "A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950," was published in 2000. An edited version of his 6,000-page diary covering 1952 to 1998 is scheduled to be released this fall by Penguin Press.

His marriage to Marian Cannon Schlesinger ended in divorce. A daughter from that marriage, Katharine Kinderman, died in 2004.

Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Alexandra Emmet Schlesinger of Manhattan, N.Y.; three children from his first marriage, Stephen C. Schlesinger and Christina Schlesinger, both of Manhattan, and Andrew Schlesinger of Cambridge, Mass.; a son from his second marriage, Robert Schlesinger of Alexandria; a stepson, Peter Allan of Manhattan; and three grandchildren.


Addenda

"I Can't ... and I Won't ..."

How did the late Arthur Schlesinger view the matter of conspiracy in the JFK assassination?

In 1967 Raymond Marcus, one of the earliest Warren Report critics, had an opportunity to meet Schlesinger in Los Angeles. Schlesinger was in town for an appearance on a local TV talk show. The program's host, whom Marcus had gotten to know, called Marcus to invite him down to the studio.

Marcus had analyzed both the Zapruder film and the Moorman photograph, and believed he could use them to demonstrate there had in fact been a conspiracy. The talk show host, he recalled, "suggested that I bring my photo materials...

"When I arrived I was ushered into a waiting area, and there I spread out some of the Zapruder and Moorman photos on a table." Schlesinger arrived a short time later and the two men were introduced. "Schlesinger glanced at the photos and immediately paled, turned away and said, 'I can't look and I won't look.' That was the end of our meeting."

Thirteen years later, Marcus went on, Schlesinger provided an endorsement for Anthony Summers' book Conspiracy:

One does not have to accept Mr. Summers' conclusions to recognize the significance of the questions raised in this careful and disquieting analysis of the mysteries of Dallas.

(The above account is derived from Addendum B, by Raymond Marcus, p. 64.)


Have A Cigar!

In its December, 1998 issue, Cigar Afficianado magazine featured a cover story by Arthur Schlesinger called "The Truth As I See It," in which the historian sought to refute "the revisionist version of JFK's legacy."

Cigar Afficianado may seem an unlikely forum for a thoughtful defense of the Kennedy presidency. Perhaps to justify the article's presence, the magazine's cover was an oil painting of a reflective, reclining JFK, thick stogie in hand. Accompanying the text were photos of JFK lighting up while watching naval maneuvers off the California coast, and puffing away as he watched a baseball game. Schlesinger noted, in the article's conclusion, that JFK was "never more relaxed than when sitting in his rocking chair and puffing away on a fine Havana cigar." It could also be that Schlesinger enjoyed the odd Cubano, although he was not identified as a smoker in his brief end-credit.

He was, however, identified as a former special assistant to President Kennedy, and therein lay an obvious conflict, which the author sought to defuse: "I make no great claim to impartiality. I served in JFK's White House, and it was the most exhilarating experience of my life ... I may not be totally useless as a witness."

Generally, he was not. Schlesinger cited a variety of polls showing that JFK remained an immensely popular figure, so many years after his death --- less so among historians, but popular still. Yet Schlesinger sought to dispose of the fanciful notion that Kennedy-era Washington was Camelot. "No one when JFK was alive ever spoke of Washington as Camelot --- and if anyone had done so, no one would have been more derisive than JFK. Nor did those of us around him see ourselves for a moment, heaven help us, as knights of the Round Table."

More substantively, Schlesinger took on a number of what he called "myths" about the Kennedy presidency, starting with the 1960 campaign. Citing the allegation that the Kennedys stole the election in Illinois, he wrote that "Illinois was not crucial to Kennedy's victory. Had he lost Illinois, Kennedy still would have won by 276 to 246 in the electoral collage." Furthermore, Schlesinger declared, if there was any vote theft by Democrats in Cook County, Republicans were equally guilty of stealing votes elsewhere in the state.

In the balance of "The Truth As I See It," Schlesinger:

  1. refuted stories Joseph Kennedy was a bootlegger;
  2. downplayed stories of JFK's marital infidelities;
  3. reminded readers that JFK inherited the Bay of Pigs operation and CIA assassination plots against Castro;
  4. said JFK believed intervention by non-Asian troops in Vietnam meant a "foredoomed failure"; and
  5. stated that Kennedy was determined to end the Cold War and stop the nuclear arms race.

Schlesinger's article was replete with citations and opinions that second his own. This was not necessarily a good thing; his faith in the sworn testimony of Richard Helms, for example, that Operation Mongoose was "not intended to apply to assassination activity" is mystifying.

Kennedy certainly made mistakes, including the reappointment of J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles. But Schlesinger believed that JFK's achievements were many, though not always quantifiable --- as in his challenge to a new generation to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. The country had seen nothing like it since the New Deal. Kennedy was, Schlesinger concludes, "the best of my generation."

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