In one sense he fulfilled this promise. His output was prodigious, and in no way slowed by celebrityhood: one major book after another, each encyclopedic in its learning and written with a stylist’s natural verve and a 19th-century novelist’s devotion to scenery and character. And while he liked being successful, he wasn’t dazzled by the prizes (a Pulitzer, his first, for the Jackson book) and fame. Nor did he lose intellectual ambition or seriousness. For Schlesinger, the problem originated in his own great-man theory, and in his eagerness to be more than a sideline witness when America was emerging as a historic empire.
As he developed his idea of the Promethean hero of democracy, he searched for real-life examples in his own moment. The crucial years in his life, from the beginning of the Cold War through the Vietnam debacle, were spent in pursuit of rare men who would seize command of the “cycles of history” and prolong the liberal age, before the pendulum swung back, as it eventually must, to the right. The quest was on even when no such men were in sight. Schlesinger’s vivid polemic The Vital Center, published in 1949, tried to elevate the “little man” Harry Truman into a kind of bantam greatness, by translating Truman’s bluster into a higher ethic of responsibility. The collective heroes now were anti-Communist liberals, tough-guy “doers” who repudiated left-wing sissies, the “doughface progressives … the sentimentalists, the utopians, the wailers.”
After Truman came another would-be Prometheus, Adlai Stevenson. Schlesinger wrote so many speeches for him, in his 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, that Schlesinger’s own voice lost its suppleness. In sermons published in magazines but better suited to the convention hall, he called for a president who would “affirm human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history.” Schlesinger at last found, he thought, the true Prometheus in John Kennedy. Or rather, they found each other. The popular notion of Schlesinger as lapdog to Kennedy gets the dynamic wrong. When the two first met, at a dinner party at Joseph Alsop’s Georgetown house in 1946, Schlesinger—whose The Age of Jackson went into eight printings in eight months—was the more imposing figure. JFK, not yet even a member of the House of Representatives, was a lightweight and a playboy. Schlesinger, like many others, didn’t take him seriously. It was Kennedy who cultivated Schlesinger, asking for help on Profiles in Courage. And Schlesinger was won over—and eventually besotted.
With the 1960 election, the democratic revolution could be renewed. No less than Jackson, JFK was an outsider—a Boston Catholic who had toppled a barrier of bigotry. At the same time, he was a man of ideas and words, attracted to intellectuals, in particular Harvard men like himself. The pioneer trail of the New Frontier might be blazed on the Boston–Washington shuttle. Schlesinger’s name was even bruited for national-security adviser—creating Cold War policy in, as JFK put it, the “twilight struggle.” That job went to another Kennedy “Harvard,” McGeorge Bundy. Schlesinger brushed aside an ambassadorship—presumably too far from the action—but when Robert F. Kennedy suggested that he work in the White House, Schlesinger leaped. “No professional historian in all our history has ever been privileged to see events from this vantage point,” he told Harvard’s president, Nathan Pusey. The perils of compromised neutrality, or worse, seem not to have occurred to him, probably because he felt as much author as observer of Kennedy’s promise. The president, with a politician’s shrewdness, saw more clearly how the bargain worked, accurately guessing that his reputation “was safe in Arthur’s hands,” Aldous drily observes.