The Courtier

Arthur Schlesinger’s journals are predictably sycophantic—and surprisingly good.

On the last recorded occasion on which Arthur Schlesinger spoke with his hero John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the two men were flying from Washington to Amherst for a presidential address on “the place of arts in a democracy”—a speech on which Schlesinger had brought his agreeable skills and easy fluency to bear:

We chatted about the Eisenhower reminiscences on the way up. The President commented on their self-righteousness. “Apparently he never did anything wrong,” he said. “When we come to writing the memoirs of this administration, we’ll do it differently.”

When I reached this passage, which occurs at about the 200-page mark, I was so astonished that I put the book down for a moment. Obviously a journal must be true both to itself and to the day on which it was written, and there is little evidence that Schlesinger succumbed to any yearning to improve matters in hindsight. But it was as though he had stumbled on the truth and then picked himself up as if nothing had happened. The annoying legend and imagery of “Camelot” may not be exactly Schlesinger’s fault (he actually expresses distaste for the Theodore White cliché), but he doesn’t hesitate to compare the Kennedys’ accession to power with the transition from Plantagenet to York—which is an odd way of historicizing the Eisenhower-Nixon period as well as the Kennedy interlude—and in countless other ways subordinates his dignity as a historian to the requirements of the courtier and even the apologist.

Yet these journals are quite disconcertingly good. For one thing, they are extremely illuminating, if often unconsciously so, in showing the diminishing returns to which the New Deal faction became subject in the postwar and Cold War periods. For another, they are humorous and often even witty, and show an eye for the telling detail and the encapsulating anecdote.

Most of all, they demonstrate how messy and approximate is the business of statecraft. Here, I remind you, is the empurpled way in which Schlesinger wrote about JFK’s comportment during the Cuba crisis in A Thousand Days:

It was this combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that dazzled the world.

But page through the entries for October 1962 in this journal and you will discover an administration hectically improvising, ill served by the “intelligence” services, alternating and oscillating, and uneasily aware that it is being outpointed by the boorish Khrushchev. If anyone emerges as cool and wise as well as smart, it is Averell Harriman. When writing about the more slow-motion confrontation with the Dixiecrats who did not want James Meredith to register at the University of Mississippi, Schlesinger the diarist shows us a president who dealt with such political bosses as if he, too, were merely another state governor trying persuasion. (Kennedy could be tougher when he had to be: Schlesinger was in the room when the Leader of the Free World complained to Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph that Sheriff “Bull” Connor “has done more for civil rights than almost anybody else,” and that proposing a March on Washington was like forcing him to negotiate at gunpoint.)

Thus we learn again that what people set down day to day is of greater value than what they try to synthesize retrospectively into a grand sweep or theory. I do not think that Schlesinger would want his previous hero Adlai Stevenson to pass into history as a vain and weak and narcissistic type, but this is the impression that inexorably builds by way of a series of well-drawn miniature encounters. How can some people argue so confidently that Indochina was Johnson’s war rather than Kennedy’s when Schlesinger quotes LBJ, in December 1963, still holding “to his earlier views” and asking Mike Forrestal, “Don’t you think that the situation in Vietnam is more hopeless today than it has ever been before?”

Coming down a bit in the scale of grandeur: Did Isaiah Berlin really describe Evangeline Bruce as “a bloody bore”? (If so, the bell tolls here for decades of the Georgetown “special relationship” smart set.) And were Schlesinger and Bobby Kennedy really “engaged in mock competition” for the fragrant Marilyn Monroe after the JFK birthday rally at Madison Square Garden in May 1962? There is a sort of sublime naïveté in the way Schlesinger records his Galahad’s doings: Things that are now notorious are not so much airbrushed as unnoticed. Not a mention of the steep decline in the state of Kennedy’s health and his marriage is allowed, and the name of Judith Campbell Exner, to give only one instance, is nowhere in the narrative at all.

Partisanship cannot be a complete explanation of this, nor can innocence. As the journals go on, and as American politics learns somehow to live without the Kennedys, Schlesinger learns to see through certain Democrats, even certain occupants of the White House. I would not have known, without reading the fascinating pages about the election of 1980, just how much Schlesinger and his circle had come to despise Jimmy Carter and to hope, in effect, for the election of Ronald Reagan. (It turns out that George McGovern, and every member of his family, had voted for Gerald Ford in 1976 to avert the horrible possibility of a Carter White House. In 1980, Schlesinger himself was for the witless Christian fundamentalist John Anderson—anyone but the cornball from Plains, Georgia, and his awful sidekick Zbigniew Brzezinski.)

Admittedly, much of this comes to us filtered through a dull blizzard of dinners and cocktails at Le Cirque and the Century Club and the Council on Foreign Relations, with a floating cast of vanden Heuvels and Plimptons and Styrons and Mailers. Every now and then, Schlesinger meets someone from outside his familiar charmed circle, like Mick Jagger or Abbie Hoffman, and emits a quasi-senescent whinny of astonishment that such people can talk and walk, but I never said he was another “Chips” Channon. The best running gag—every good diarist has one—starts in the spring of 1980, when Richard Nixon moves to East 65th Street in Manhattan, just over Schlesinger’s garden fence, and provides some comic relief that draws the sting from the failure of Teddy Kennedy’s grotesque campaign against Carter. From one such entry:

Very few [Nixon] sightings … though when I throw open the curtains in the morning, around 7 o’clock, a fire is usually blazing in his fireplace. Lest he get too much moral credit for rising so early it should be noted that the Nixons seem to dine around 6 o’clock, an hour or so before we start pre-prandial drinking, and the house is generally dark by 9. Not New York hours.

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.