Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

A nice man, not just an eminent one

I ran into Arthur Schlesinger perhaps ten times in my life. The first was 40 years ago, when he came to visit his son Andy during Andy’s freshman year in college. I wandered by, from my room around the corner in the same freshman dorm, and was astonished to see the man whose A Thousand Days I had studied only a few months earlier in high school social studies class in California. With the Kennedy administration still in living memory, he was a real celebrity in those days, not just a successful writer, but he was unaffected and approachable to his son’s new classmates.

The last time I saw him was a year or so ago, at a meeting of the Judson Welliver Society, a kind of Friar’s Club for one-time presidential speechwriters. He was inevitably a luminary among this group too, since he and Theodore Sorensen, in their relationships with John Kennedy, represented the fulfillment of many speechwriters’ dreams.

In between he sometimes came to the Atlantic’s office in Boston, especially to talk with his friend Robert Manning, who had served with him in the Kennedy Administration before becoming editor of the magazine. Schlesinger was not close to Jimmy Carter, to put it mildly (he was part of the group that encouraged Teddy Kennedy to challenge Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries), but he gave useful advice about the nuts and bolts of speechwriting to Carter’s campaign staff. Or at least he did to me, when I saw him briefly at a campaign stop in 1976. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, when I called him for advice on historical or political topics I was writing about, he was patient, even with basic questions. We had a few other business dealings on the series of presidential biographies he had been overseeing.

Also see:
James Fallows's Web site, with regularly updated dispatches, and information about his writings and appearances.

I am not meaning to describe “My Days with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.,” as if we were close. Just the reverse. He barely knew me, and our few dealings were across a huge eminence gap more or less like that of the first freshman-dorm encounter. The point is that nothing in his bearing indicated his awareness of that fact. Many big shots carry themselves like big shots; he did not. He was patient, droll, lively, engaged, helpful to people who weren’t necessarily worth his time. He seemed genuinely nice. This is not so common a trait among people of his eminence to go without mention. He was a fine man.