Schlesinger had written the Kennedy campaign’s anti-biography of Nixon for the election of 1960, and had come to the view that he was
the greatest shit in 20th century American politics (the “20th century” bit is pure scholarly caution; I cannot at the moment think of anyone in the 19th century quite meeting Nixon’s combination of sanctimoniousness and squalor).
He is quite rightly indignant at the way in which Nixon “ended” U.S. participation in the Vietnam War in 1972, on terms no better than had been available in 1969 but after a hideous waste of life. Yet for Nixon’s sinuous enabler in all this Schlesinger has nothing but praise. Henry Kissinger is continually recruited as a social partner, dinner guest, and general sage. In one 1982 entry, Schlesinger lavishes compliments on him for his memoirs and for his humanizing portrait of Nixon. Amusingly, Kissinger demurs and says that he regards Nixon as a poisonous manipulator. Again, it isn’t obvious that Schlesinger understands that the irony, from a fellow member of the presidential-sycophants club, is at his expense. The exchange contains an anecdote well worth repeating. At Anwar Sadat’s funeral, Ford had expressed disgust at Nixon’s behavior and told Kissinger: “Sometimes I wish I had never pardoned that son of a bitch.” Who would have thought that the hapless Ford administration would be so much the beneficiary of a Schlesinger memoir?
There is a disappointing absence of rancor here. Like Will Rogers, Schlesinger seems never to meet anyone for whom he can’t find a good word. (I should declare an interest and say that I feature on a short “enemies list” of his, which otherwise consists of Gore Vidal, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Joan Didion, and John Gregory Dunne. He is very genial and lenient toward all of us, except Didion, and even she is forgiven when he meets her properly and finds that she has unsuspected qualities.) Such affability may be admirable, but it does slow things down a bit. Indeed, Schlesinger’s good manners are almost masochistic. Of Vidal, he writes: “At least he knows me, which in a way legitimizes his right to attack me.” Self-deprecation could do no more; still, one might ask for a little more gin in the martini.
Like Fabrizio in The Charterhouse of Parma, who could never work out whether he had been present for the Battle of Waterloo, Schlesinger gives us keyhole- sized insights into events in which he was a participant. He omits all mention of his participation in the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, and in the famous controversy over the covert funding of the magazine Encounter. (This seems to me to be mildly scandalous.) His slim record of the 1956 presidential campaign fails even to touch upon the Suez invasion and the Hungarian Revolution. He spares us any real account of November 22, 1963, and when in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Convention, contents himself with recording that he once managed to get Teddy Kennedy on the phone after the line had been busy. This must have seemed important at the time, though the senator’s subsequent remarks hardly seem worth preserving.
Denouncing Harriman for endorsing the detested Carter, Schlesinger commits another of his accidental innocences and writes:
I know his penchant for staying in with Democratic Presidents, and with potential winners; but at eighty-eight he need not go out of his way to keep on good terms with power.
Schlesinger was then 62. By the time he turned 81, he was willing to make a fool of himself in public by testifying to Congress on Bill Clinton’s behalf, saying that “gentlemen always lie about their sex lives”; Clinton was by no stretch of the definition a gentleman and was lying not about sex (which is done to protect the reputation of the woman) but about the women (which was done to defame them and to protect nobody but himself). Interestingly, the journals demonstrate that Schlesinger guessed right in private about Clinton’s squalid mendacity; yet this did not prevent him from adopting a frankly partisan line, or from complaining to his diary that he was not often enough invited to the Clinton White House.
In a sentimental entry for Christmas 1983, he reflects that he might have written more books were it not for the demands of his children, but that he cannot regret the choice he made. This wistfulness is charming but self-deceptive: Schlesinger might have written not just more books but better ones (as we know from the quality of The Age of Jackson and The Disuniting of America) if he had not squandered so much time and energy being a compulsive socialite and an insecure valet du pouvoir.